JACKSONVILLE: South Carolina raced out to an early lead behind its up-tempo offense, another touchdown pass from punter Kai Kroeger and DQ Smith’s pick-six. But as the sun settled over TIAA Bank Field, the Gamecocks offense lost its way and Notre Dame’s ground game took control, eventually tracking down South Carolina in a 45-38 Gator Bowl victory for the Irish, Friday.
USC’s defense held up against Notre Dame’s potent rush attack throughout the first half and much of the third quarter before Logan Diggs broke through with a 39-yard touchdown run, giving the Irish their first lead. After being limited to just 64 yards in the first half, the dam broke as the Irish ran for 149 yards in the fourth quarter. No single player eclipsed the century mark, but the duo of Diggs (89 yards) and Audric Estime (95 yards) picked up crucial first downs and leaned on the thin Gamecocks defense, pressing them to exhaustion. Of course, the Irish were playing without some key pieces, as well, including quarterback Drew Pyne. Tyler Buchner stepped in and made some big plays with his arm (274 yards, 3 touchdowns) and his legs (61 yards, 2 touchdowns).
The Gamecocks defense made its share of plays, too. Freshmen DQ Smith and O’Donnell Fortune each returned interceptions for scores. Smith struck first, taking back a tipped pass (Alex Huntley) 47 yards to give USC a 21-7 lead. Fortune made his mark midway through the fourth quarter. The freshman, making his first start, read the eyes of Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner before plucking an errant pass out of the air and streaking 100 yards to the end zone. The Gamecocks fans in attendance erupted as the turnover tied the game and swung the momentum back in South Carolina’s favor.
But it wasn’t to be as Notre Dame scored the game-winner on a 16-yard pass from Buchner to tight end Mitchell Evans with less than two minutes remaining. After lighting it up in the first half and helping USC take a two-touchdown lead, Spencer Rattler and his receivers fell out of rhythm as the game tightened. Rattler and Xavier Legette (7 catches, 78 yards, 2 touchdowns) connected on a highlight-worthy 42-yard scoring pass midway through the third quarter, but little else went the offense’s way as the Irish ratcheted up the pressure. The Gamecocks were also hampered by the loss of its lone tight end, Nate Adkins (5 catches, 78 yards), to an upper-body injury. Juice Wells (5 catches, 30 yards) was clearly not 100% after leaving the game holding his ribs, further limiting Rattler’s options.
South Carolina (8-5) heads into the offseason with uncertainty surrounding some draft-eligible players like Rattler, Wells and Jordan Burch, but head coach Shane Beamer also deployed a lot of young talent down the stretch that should contribute in 2023.