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Gator Bowl grades: Buchner delivers rollercoaster effort amidst transfer rumors

| Sunday, January 1, 2023

Tyler Buchner entered the 2022 season with a lot of hype. With the offensive line and run game struggling, Buchner’s inexperience as a passer shone through in a rough, 0-2 start to the season. In the second loss, Buchner suffered an injury that sidelined him until Friday’s bowl game.

The sophomore took the field for his third career start amidst raging rumors that Notre Dame is trying to land Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman. That would put Buchner into another quarterback battle in 2023. With a lot of pressure to showcase the talent that earned him the QB1 spot to start the year, Buchner delivered a wildly up-and-down performance in Notre Dame’s 45-38 win. He accounted for 335 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns, but he also threw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Here’s a drive-by-drive look at Buchner’s Gator Bowl effort.

Drive 1: Three plays, two yards, punt

Best play: Incomplete pass on first down

Worst play: Incomplete pass on third down

Buchner didn’t exactly start hot, delivering two off-target throws on his first two attempts. The first was certainly catchable, but it was a bit of a rocket from just yards away towards a crossing Lorenzo Styles. It went in the box score as a Styles drop. It was, but it was also off-target. The third-down throw was far worse. On third and eight, Buchner had sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas open for the first down, but he just led his target too far across the field, ending the drive with a three-and-out.

Grade: D

Drive 2: 10 plays, 50 yards, TD

Best Play: 15-yard touchdown run

Worst Play: Incomplete pass to Holden Staes

In a grind-it-out touchdown drive, Buchner was inconsistent, but he made plays where it counted. On 2nd and 15, he threw a bullet pass to freshman tight end Holden Staes. It went slightly high. Similar to the incompletion to Styles, it was catchable, but it was an off-target effort.

However, Buchner responded with a third-down completion to sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans for 18 yards to keep the drive alive. Four plays later, Buchner appeared to call an audible on third and nine from the 15-yard line, and he danced through the middle and into the end zone on a quarterback draw. It was a reminder of the dual-threat ability that Buchner brings to the table, which becomes more lethal in the red zone, particularly with the Irish’s strong run game.

Grade: B+

Drive 3: Five plays, 19 yards, pick-six

Best Play: Shovel pass to Braden Lenzy, 13 yards

Worst Play: Pick-six

This was a disaster of a drive, as Buchner did very little besides shoveling a second-down pass to graduate student receiver Braden Lenzy. After a pair of runs, Buchner looked to dump it to sophomore running back Logan Diggs, but the pass was deflected at the line. It popped in the air and was returned for a touchdown. There was some miscommunication with Diggs’ motion; he collided with offensive guard Josh Lugg, who also allowed his blocking assignment to get elevated and deflect the pass. Out of three interceptions, this one was the least on Buchner, but it still was a massive mistake in the moment, putting the Irish down 21-7.

Grade: F

Drive 4: 11 plays, 56 yards, field goal

Best play: 14-yard pass on 3rd and 12 to Jayden Thomas

Worst play: 12-yard sack on 3rd and goal

Buchner rebounded well from the pick-six, completing two of three passes for 28 yards on the ensuing drive for the Irish. He added a 21-yard rush that got them into field goal range. His most impressive play was easily on a 3rd and 12 conversion from the South Carolina 44. Buchner rolled right and got drilled as he unleashed a throw to Thomas. The pass hit the sophomore receiver in stride where only he could catch it, allowing Thomas to convert the first down. From a difficulty standpoint, it was arguably Buchner’s most impressive throw all day.

A few plays later, Buchner nearly undid all his work by scrambling around on a third and goal. He dropped back and scrambled right and eventually took a massive 12-yard sack. By not getting rid of the ball, Buchner turned a 24-yard field goal attempt into a 36-yarder. Graduate student kicker Blake Grupe drilled the kick anyways, but Buchner nearly made a disaster of a solid drive by trying to play the hero.

Grade: B-

Drive 5: One play, 75 yards, touchdown

Best Play: 75-yard touchdown pass to Logan Diggs

It is hard to fault Buchner for anything on this drive, but it is also hard to give him a ton of credit. Most of the work on this one-play drive came from Diggs. The running back motioned out of the backfield, and Buchner hit him in the chest and in stride. Diggs, with a little blocking help, did the rest of the work.

Grade: A

Drive 6: Three plays, -8 yards, punt

Best Play: 8-yard screen pass to Audric Estime

Worst Play: 9-yard sack on third down

This was an absolute disaster of a drive, although it wasn’t really on Buchner. It started with a shovel pass that was absolutely blown up for a seven-yard loss. After that, Buchner completed the second-down play call as well as he could have, dishing off a screen pass that gained seven yards and made it a manageable third down.

On third down, Buchner faced basically immediate pressure as All-American left tackle Joe Alt got beaten off the snap. Buchner evaded an immediate sack but got drilled soon after by an unblocked blitzing linebacker. Maybe Buchner could have just gotten rid of the ball after the first sack attempt. It wouldn’t have changed much, except where the Irish punted from.

Grade: C+

Drive 7: Three plays, one yard, punt

Best Play: Incomplete deep pass on third down

Worst Play: Incomplete slant on second down

After a one-yard run to start the second half, Buchner looked to pass twice, both times firing toward freshman receiver Tobias Merriweather. The second-down pass was a low slant, falling in the ‘catchable but off-target’ department. Merriweather ran a slant near the sticks, but he had to fall to reach Buchner’s low throw and couldn’t collect the pass. That led to a third and nine, and Buchner targeted Merriweather once more, this time on a deep post. It was a well-placed ball, just out in front of the freshman. However, Buchner’s target seemed to lose the ball in the lights and never attempted to make a play on the ball. It ended up as a ‘what could have happened’ moment.

Grade: C

Drive 8: Five plays, 68 yards, touchdown

Best play: 25-yard pass to Jayden Thomas

Worst play: 1-yard run on first down

This was a case study in how valuable Tyler Buchner can be for this Notre Dame offense. First down called for a designed run which went for one yard. But after that, it was all smooth sailing. Estime’s 19-yard run set up one of Buchner’s best throws of the evening. He found Jayden Thomas on a deep out route by the left sideline, dropping the ball in a bucket for his classmate. It was a 25-yard gain that put the Irish at the South Carolina 23. Then, Estime ran for 12, and Buchner kept for 11 yards to finish off a blistering five-play, 68-yard touchdown drive.

Grade: A

Drive 9: Three plays, six yards, interception

Best play: 6-yard run

Worst play: Interception

Buchner showed why he could be so dangerous, and then he demonstrated the inexperience and recklessness that has the Irish exploring the transfer portal. After two runs for six yards, the Irish faced third down. Buchner scrambled to avoid pressure. Although he was virtually out of any options to convert the first down, Buchner tried to make some magic happen. He flipped the ball toward Jayden Thomas, but the ball was behind the receiver. It popped up in the air and into South Carolina hands for an interception. Down 31-24 already, Notre Dame faced a potentially devastating momentum swing.

Grade: F

Drive 10: Eight plays, 31 yards, punt

Best Play: 12-yard pass on third down

Worst Play: Incomplete pass on 2nd & 7

Buchner offered a solid response to his second interception, moving the Irish into South Carolina territory before a punt. After the offense gained 13 yards in three plays, Buchner turfed a second-down pass under heavy pressure. It was a harmless incompletion that kept the drive alive. With the third-down opportunity, Buchner delivered a strike on a slant to Lenzy, good for 12 yards and a first down.

Two plays later, however, the Irish faced another third down and the Gamecocks blitzed. Buchner faced instant pressure and did well to not take a sack, but he could only find Thomas for one yard, leading to a punt.

Grade: B+

Drive 11: One play, 44 yards, touchdown

Best Play: 44-yard touchdown pass

Another candidate for one of Buchner’s best throws of the evening, this 44-yard bomb to Lenzy tied the game up for the first time since the first quarter. Sophomore tight end Mitchell Evans picked up a blitz, but Buchner still threw under duress. He managed to hit Lenzy in stride on a deep crossing route for the score.

Grade: A+

Drive 12: Seven plays*, 73 yards, touchdown

Best play: 8-yard run on 2nd down

Worst play: Incomplete pass on third down

This drive was seven plays, with the asterisk denoting a fake punt that extended the drive while Buchner wasn’t on the field. Prior to the punt, Buchner underthrew a deep post route into tight coverage. It was an interesting play call on 3rd and 4, and Buchner threw to his first read. A perfect throw might have been completed, but it was a small margin for error.

After the fake, Buchner threw incomplete on a broken play but ran for eight yards to set up a short third down. From there, Diggs did the work with a 39-yard touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 38-31 lead. Buchner did quite little on this drive, but he also didn’t do a ton wrong. And ultimately, Notre Dame scored, with the help of a little trickery.

Grade: C

Drive 13: Six plays, 53 yards, pick-six

Best play: 17-yard run on first down

Worst play: Pick-six

It was almost a masterclass. A fantastic, game-sealing drive to give the Irish a 45-31 lead and basically clinch a Gator Bowl victory. And then it turned to disaster.

Buchner started the drive with a 17-yard run, putting the South Carolina defense on its heels. A few plays later, Buchner called his own number on a three-yard quarterback sneak to convert a first down. But, after a 26-yard run by Estime, Buchner erased the offensive progress. The play call was for a first-down slant pass over the middle for Evans. Buchner pump-faked a screen to get one linebacker to clear the throwing lane. The throw may have been open for a split second, but Buchner took an extra drop step before releasing. It allowed the weakside linebacker to diagnose the play, and he dropped back to make the interception, returning it for a game-tying touchdown.

Grade: F

Drive 14: 12 plays, 80 yards, touchdown

Best play: 16-yard touchdown pass

Worst play: 1-yard run

Buchner displayed impressive resilience in a strong response after his second pick-six. In 12 plays, Buchner passed three times for 30 yards and ran once for four yards. Beyond that, he was happy to let his running backs do the work, and that they did. However, the drive included a 3rd and 1 conversion as Buchner read a quarterback sneak well and brought it around the right tackle for a four-yard gain.

A few plays later, sitting on the edge of field goal range, Buchner calmly completed a pitch-and-catch third-down conversion to junior running back Chris Tyree, who motioned out of the backfield. That allowed the Irish to drain some more clock, which they gladly did on a pair of runs of one and two yards.

That left a 3rd and seven from the 16-yard line, and many assumed the Irish would run the ball and force South Carolina to take a timeout before attempting a field goal. The Irish lined up in their preferred run concept, duo, but the call was a play-action pass. After faking the handoff, Buchner kept his eyes to the right, towards a streaking Thomas. Suddenly, he pivoted back left and found Evans wide open. The play call worked well, and Buchner executed it to perfection on his final snap of the day.

Grade: A+

Final Grades

Over 14 drives, Buchner displayed the highs and lows that come with raw talent and very little experience. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees gave his sophomore quarterback a chance to both sling it and use his legs. In those 14 drives, Buchner earned 4 ‘A’ grades and 3 ‘F’s. It was truly a wild performance from start to finish.

In 2022, the Irish had a quarterback who generally played safe, but his ceiling limited the Irish in a few critical moments. There’s no doubt, after he accounted for five touchdowns in the Gator Bowl, that Buchner raises that ceiling, but the floor, for now, appears to be much lower. Or it looked as much in Friday’s three-interception effort. That’s a lot of risk to carry into a 2023 season with a lot of returning talent and Playoff aspirations. If Buchner was looking to deliver a performance that proved the Irish don’t need to consider the transfer portal, he failed to do so. But he did deliver the Irish their first bowl win over a ranked opponent since 2017, and he showcased a talent level that, once polished, could be the best the Irish have had at the position in years.

Final Grade: B-

Contact Aidan Thomas at [email protected]

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

Contact Aidan