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Irish, Gamecocks set to battle in TaxSlayer Gator Bowl

After a reported battle between the Holiday Bowl and the Gator Bowl for the team’s attendance, Notre Dame is headed for the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida. The 21st-ranked Irish will take on No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30. It is Notre Dame’s fourth appearance in the Gator Bowl, going 1-2 in their three previous visits, winning in 1976 and losing in 1998 and 2002. For the Irish, it’s their fifth consecutive year being selected for a bowl game and the 11th time in the past 12 years. 

“Can’t tell you how excited we are to play in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, and to play a great opponent in South Carolina,” head coach Marcus Freeman said. “To see what they’ve done to finish off their season is remarkable. We are excited to be able to play South Carolina on Dec. 30.”

Shane Beamer, in his second season at the helm for South Carolina, remarked on getting to play Notre Dame and commended the Irish for a great season. 

“We’re really excited about our fantastic bowl. A lot of those ticket sales have to do with who we’re playing. A lot of respect for what [Notre Dame] has done this year,” Beamer said. “Both of us started off 1-2 and we’ve both rebounded to get to where we are right now. A lot of respect for Coach Freeman.”

The coaching matchup will be between two young head coaches. Beamer, 45, took his first head coaching gig with the Gamecocks, taking over the program in 2021. He’s 15-10 through two seasons, going 7-6 last year with a win in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Freeman is just 36 years old. At the time of his hiring, he was the third-youngest coach in the FBS. He has a career record of 8-5, losing last year’s Fiesta Bowl and going 8-4 this season. 

2022 was an up-and-down season for the Irish, who entered the year ranked fifth in the country. They promptly lost to No. 2 Ohio State and unranked Marshall, dropping out of the Top 25. A three-game surge was overshadowed by a brutal midseason loss to a floundering Stanford squad. Then, the Irish ripped off five straight wins, including a win over then-unbeaten Clemson. They ended their year with a loss to then-fifth-ranked USC. 

“It was just to focus on trying to improve. Being a first-year head coach, you’re trying to do whatever it takes to win,” Freeman commented. “We talked about it being a bumpy road. It wasn’t how we foresaw it as the season started.”

However, for all the bumps and bruises the Irish experienced in Freeman’s first season, they have a chance to finish with at least nine wins for the seventh time in the past eight season. Freeman would be the first Irish coach to win 9+ games and finish with a bowl game victory in his first season. His predecessor, Brian Kelly, did not win nine games until his third season with the Irish. 

To do this, Notre Dame will have to operate with a quarterback that has not won a game with the Irish. And maybe one that hasn’t started. Drew Pyne, who took over as the starter when Tyler Buchner went down with injury, went 8-2 for Notre Dame. However, he announced his intent to transfer and won’t play in the Gator Bowl. 

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster. Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli, Ron Powlus. Could see any of the three play,” Freeman said. 

The first-year head coach also expanded on Pyne’s decision. 

“Drew was tremendous. You hate to see him leave and enter the portal. As I told him in our meeting, what he’s done for our program — and to step in, he’s done a tremendous job,” Freeman said. “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster and I always want to be upfront. I was with Drew and told him we were possibly looking at taking a transfer quarterback. I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal and I respect his decision.”

So Notre Dame will be without their starting quarterback for the Gator Bowl. The only other major personnel update as of Sunday evening was that starting cornerback Cam Hart will officially undergo surgery and miss the game as well. Hart was injured versus Boston College on Senior Day and didn’t play against USC. 

Freeman is still waiting to hear from other players regarding transfer or opt-out decisions. Junior tight end Michael Mayer and senior vyper Isaiah Foskey are projected first-round draft selections and candidates to opt out, however, they have not made their decision known.

“For our guys that are deciding whether they’re going to play, they understand the sooner the better,” Freeman said. 

Notre Dame faces a red hot opponent in South Carolina. The Gamecocks also started somewhat slow, going 1-2 in their first three games with losses to Arkansas and Georgia. Beamer described the Gamecocks as “uncompetitive” in the Georgia loss. South Carolina then won three straight games but struggled for a bit. They floundered in a 30-6 loss to Florida, dropping to 6-4. However, the Gamecocks ended their season with a pair of statement top-10 wins, slamming No. 6 Tennessee 63-38 and edging out No. 7 Clemson, 31-30. 

“Any competitor wants to play great teams,” Freeman said. “I remember watching a couple plays with my kids [against Tennessee] and thinking ‘wow, this team is explosive’, You know you’re facing an extremely talented opponent and we want that, we want a chance to play a great opponent.” 

The Freeman noted that he hasn’t watched much South Carolina film, but he’s seen some of Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler. Rattler has showed out in the past two weeks, throwing for eight touchdowns, including six against Tennessee. He threw eight in the first ten games of the season, compared to nine interceptions in that time frame. However, Rattler showed just how high his ceiling was in those past two games, completing 55 of 76 passes for 798 yards. His quarterback ratings against Tennessee (97.3) and Clemson (70.0) were two of his three highest on the season. 

“I did take a couple of minutes to peek at just the offense versus Clemson. He’s special. Their offense is explosive, and it all starts with their quarterback. Spencer is an extremely talented individual.” Freeman said. “The ability extend plays with his legs, to throw the ball in tight spaces, make good decisions, he’s a talented quarterback. We’ve faced some talented quarterbacks this season and he’ll be just as good as some of those quarterbacks we’ve faced.”

Kickoff for the Gator Bowl will be at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 30. ESPN will have the broadcast.