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Keys to Victory: Notre Dame vs. South Carolina

The Irish are set to take on the Gamecocks in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl just before 2022 ends. These are the things Notre Dame will need to accomplish to end their 2022 campaign on a high note. A win Friday earns head coach Marcus Freeman his first bowl game win. 

Pressure Rattler, limit his options

The Gamecocks have 12 players who will not head down to Jacksonville due to transfer portal, draft or personal reasons. In these departures are several tight ends and a running back limiting what quarterback Spencer Rattler can do. The Gamecock offense relied heavily on its tight end room all season but on Friday they won’t have Jaheim Bell, Austin Stogner or Traveon Kenion. Bell and Stogner led the position as South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer’s top two receiving tight ends. Now, Beamer must rely on graduate student Nate Adkins to lead a room of walk-ons and young guys. They’ll attempt to fill the gaping hole left by the three tight ends.

Bell also became a lead rusher after Marshawn Lloyd was injured in the middle of the season. Healthy now, Lloyd also entered the transfer portal. These departures leave Christian Beal-Smith and JuJu McDowell atop the depth chart in the run game, again limiting the options Rattler has to work with. 

Still, Spencer Rattler has talent. In South Carolina’s successes, Antwane Wells Jr., Josh Vann and Jalen Brooks each had games with more than 50 receiving yards. Wells Jr. led the Gamecocks with 898 receiving yards. Now that other options will play smaller roles, Notre Dame has to take advantage of that lowered confidence. Rattler may be slower to release to guys he’s not as comfortable with so the defensive line has to be in his face quickly. Pass rush and blitzes can force the Phoenix native to make mistakes.

It will then be up to the secondary to be ready for those mistakes. The Irish secondary has to give the pass rushers time to get to Rattler. His offense may be seemingly one-dimensional now but Notre Dame cannot open any doors for the junior quarterback. If the Irish want to beat this squad, the effort will have to start with shutting down the passing game from Rattler both from the pocket and downfield.

Buchner cannot just take off

Almost any team would love to have a dual-threat quarterback. The Irish often benefitted from former quarterback Ian Book’s ability to scramble and make decisions both inside and outside the pocket. 

The issue arises when the second threat almost becomes a promise. 

Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner cannot only scramble but full-on run. Notre Dame will not win this contest though if he’s not more ready to stay in the pocket and see his options. The young leader will have to keep his head up and find some success in the passing game to use his running ability effectively. Against Marshall, he led the team in rushing yards, including two touchdowns which can be such a useful weapon, so long as the defense can’t expect it. Marshall won because they started to expect Buchner.

The Buckeyes limited Buchner to 1.5 yards per carry. He had similar completion rates in both games though, with around 55%. South Carolina may try to emulate Ohio State in their approach to Buchner, not only learning to expect him but being prepared beforehand. On Friday, he needs to look and feel comfortable accomplishing every part of the Irish attack in order for Notre Dame to come away with a win. 

Not only will Buchner need a stronger pocket presence, but he will need to trust the offensive line. Jarrett Patterson, Joe Alt and the Irish offensive line worked out a few kinks since Buchner got injured. He will have to trust that the line will give him enough time to make the right play and the right decision.

Irish tight ends, receivers step up without Mayer

The Irish run game is the most stable room on Notre Dame’s roster right now. The passing game, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Michael Mayer left for the NFL draft and Buchner has not been in the chair all season. While Notre Dame isn’t new to replacing star tight ends, the Mayer hole will feel bigger than most. The Irish receiving corps is going to have to fill big shoes and that starts with the tight end squad.

Mitchell Evans and Holden Staes are options to take on a more receiving-oriented role for the Gator Bowl. Davis Sherwood is third on the depth chart. It may even be a team effort on the receiving front. Evans has more experience blocking with the Irish rather than catching. Staes just hasn’t had much of a chance yet to see the field. The Irish offense needs to be comfortable transitioning some of Mayer’s packages to one of these three guys though if they want to see success on Friday. For 2023, Kevin Bauman will be back with a skillset more like Mayer’s but at the moment, someone else will have to prove they too can make the clutch plays.

The responsibility may even fall this week to some of the more recently trusted receivers. Deion Colzie and Jayden Thomas can get up there and make grabs. They also have a certain speed to bring to the equation. The Irish can rely on these five names to shape themselves into different aspects of Mayer’s role and will need to do so successfully to win on Friday.

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu.

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