Things We Learned: ‘Bitter’ lessons mark Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl faceplant, but pieces of encouragement can carry into 2022

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There was always going to be a learning curve when Notre Dame made a 35-year-old defensive coordinator its head coach. Nearly every young head coach needs to accelerate his understanding of a leader’s duties, both on gameday and year-round, and nearly every defensive mind needs to figure out how he will approach game-control decisions.

And for the No. 5 Irish (11-2), as painful, frustrating and embarrassing as the collapse was in the Fiesta Bowl’s second half on Saturday, turning a 28-7 lead into a 37-35 loss to No. 9 Oklahoma State (12-2), Marcus Freeman’s learning curve being made apparent in a bowl game is preferable to it remaining below the surface heading into the 2022 season.

That was never the focus of Freeman’s postgame comments, neither to his team nor to the media. And it shouldn’t have been. Postgame comments are meant to be about the game, not about what comes next.

“His main points were just talking about how we felt about the disappointment of the game, not being able to send the seniors off as champions,” sophomore running back Chris Tyree said. “Just taking everything that we feel right now and using it as motivation for the next season.”

Disappointment about sending off the seniors with a loss would be one thing, but that’s not all Notre Dame did. It sent off the likes of Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish and Drew White with the most bitter of tastes as the Cowboys scored 30 straight points to storm back on New Year’s Day. It sent off Jack Coan not with a career-capping 500-yard performance, but with the feeling that five touchdowns were undone by his one interception.

“[Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees] had a great game plan, as far as passing the ball for us,” Coan said. “He called some great plays for me. I guess it was a lot of yards, but at the end of the day, all I care about is winning and losing. I wish I could have done a little bit more to help the team.”

Though a one-possession game, the loss was less a result of Coan’s interception or freshman running back Logan Diggs’ fumble or even sophomore cornerback Clarence Lewis’ frequent exposures in the end zone and more a result of that learning curve.

Freeman twice punted on fourth-and-shorts near midfield, moments that modern college football recognizes call for the offense. He essentially gave Oklahoma State an extra possession before halftime, which the Cowboys turned into a touchdown. The mistake was not that Lewis got burned by Tay Martin for one of his three touchdowns; the mistake was both gifting about 90 seconds to Oklahoma State in that moment in the first place and then not responding with similar tempo. Freeman needed to either push the envelope before the half or not; he could not do some of both. He clearly deferred to Rees on what quarterback to play when, a literal example of Rees’ new autonomy on this coaching staff but perhaps a chance for the exception to prove that rule if Freeman had called for freshman Tyler Buchner to spur Notre Dame’s rushing game.

These moments are unfamiliar ground for a defensive coordinator. When to call timeouts, when to punt, when to slow down are all aspects of controlling a game that a defensive leader has never needed to worry about. First-time head coaches struggle with them regularly.

But now Freeman knows what he doesn’t know. The second-half walloping emphasized it, and the too-little, too-late comeback did not provide an opportunity for selective memory.

Tyree mentioned motivation. Freeman did, too.

“Motivated to right what happened today and to start the progression for the future,” he said.

That assuredly does not apply just to the roster. A “players’ coach” trading in accessibility and authenticity will assuredly add accountability to his branding.

The landslide of a loss does not undo Notre Dame’s 2021, though. The Irish still went 11-2 and came an upset away from the College Football Playoff. They navigated a possible program-collapsing shock a month ago and exited it with a storyline the entire country is intrigued by.

These seniors — in particular those defensive fifth-years of Tagovailoa-Amosa, Hinish and White — know the flipside of that.

“I’ve seen the culture change,” White said. “I’ve seen this program continuing to climb.”

And they know Freeman made it clear more is to come, even after the Fiesta Bowl faceplant that may replace the entire 2016 season as the standard for the usage of that particular f-word.

“He thanked the seniors, thanks for everything they did,” White said. “Then he was looking forward. He was looking forward to what’s next.

“I’m excited for next year, because it’s a blessing in disguise sometimes. We all want the win, don’t get me wrong, but to have that fire under you, to push you in the offseason. This is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of everyone for months and going into spring ball.”

Next year is the only consideration now, and not just because New Year’s Day makes for a convenient point in the calendar. The only choice the Irish have after that debacle is to look forward, and despite the spotlight on the letdown, there was plenty to encourage Notre Dame.

Oklahoma State entered Saturday as the country’s best defense at getting to the quarterback, both by dropback rate and by total sacks. The Cowboys had sacked quarterbacks 54 times on 389 pass attempts. They managed two sacks of Coan against 68 pass attempts, all while a pair of freshmen bookended the Irish offensive line. Notre Dame had not started two freshmen on the offensive line in the same game ever.

“The freshman tackles did an amazing job,” Coan said. “Those guys are unbelievably talented, and they work extremely hard. I have all the trust in the world in those guys. The fact that they’re going to be here the next few years is pretty scary for other teams.”

For that matter, left tackle Joe Alt and right tackle Blake Fisher provided that security without the safety net of pass-blocker extraordinaire running back Kyren Williams. In his place, Tyree and Diggs did their best against the best run defense in the country, resorting to catching passes in the flat nearly as often as taking carries, combining for a total of 183 yards from scrimmage on 27 touches. (That’s a 6.8 yards per touch average, which only falls to 5.8 if removing the below big play.)

Along with freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles — eight catches on 10 targets for 136 yards and one touchdown — the Irish showed some skill players even as a literal dearth of receivers led to utterly dead legs in the second half.

“[Styles is] a special player,” Coan said. “I’ve known him since day one. He’s been an extremely hard worker. He’s an amazing athlete. The fact that he’s going to be back, too, is scary for other defenses.”

Notre Dame lost to a top-10 team. That on its own would be understandable. The Irish crammed a New Year’s Eve party into the first half and demonstrated all the effects of a New Year’s Day hangover in the second half. That was less excusable.

But now Freeman knows what he needs to learn to lead Notre Dame in 2022.

“It’s not the outcome we wanted, and it’s hard, it’s bitter,” White said. “But it’s going to continue to move forward for the next season.

“I’m excited to watch Notre Dame football in 2022.”

Notre Dame lands dazzling athlete recruit, Brandyn Hillman, with signing day just two weeks away

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The early signing period opens in two weeks, and Notre Dame is not done adding to its class. Rivals.com three-star athlete Brandyn Hillman (Churchland High School; Portsmouth, Va.) joined the Irish class of 2023 on Wednesday afternoon, turning down offers from North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia Tech in doing so.

Hillman’s recruiting process was a unique one, also holding offers from USC, Oklahoma and Tennessee, as well as closer offers like Virginia, West Virginia and Boston College.

Three months ago, Hillman had none of these offers, a startling late process for someone who is expected to sign on the dotted line in two weeks. In less than one week in September, Hillman went from only one scholarship offer, from FCS-level Norfolk State. Within a week, nine FBS offers had flooded in. He visited South Bend in mid-October, watching Notre Dame fall to Stanford.

Some of that may be group-think, one school following another’s lead in uncovering hidden talent, but Hillman’s spring and early summer recruit camps put him on those schools’ radars. In physical-ability testing, Hillman’s gifts were clear.

The Irish have reportedly chased him with an open-ended thought as to where he will play, at an offensive skill position or at defensive back. He played both quarterback and cornerback in high school, and at 6-fo0t-1 and 200 pounds, he could easily adjust into either a running back or receiver, or defensive back role.

Looking at his highlight reel, Hillman’s abilities are nearly comical compared to his high-school competition. In fact, let’s dispense with the usual 2-3 paragraph summation of these clips, and instead just publish the notes taken while watching it, with some light editing.

The first clip of Hillman’s eight-minute highlight reel has him taking a shotgun snap, faking a screen pass and then cutting upfield through two defenders. About 20 yards later, he jumped over the last remaining defender en route to a 73-yard touchdown run. Okay then.

Next highlight, a stiff arm to clear his way for another long touchdown run. Third, jumped another defender, another long touchdown. Long touchdown runs are not highlights for this guy; he needs to show how he embarrassed the defense.

It is easy to see how these types of plays led to a rapid recruiting process, albeit a late one. Every coach who sees him thinks this is the scat back of the future.

He is not sought as a quarterback, and his passes make it clear why. They look to all be on the first read and are far from thrown on a line.

But quick hips and churning legs make him a dynamic runner. His quick acceleration is not apparent when focusing solely on him, his legs not necessarily spinning at a high rate, but given how easily he outruns every defender, he is clearly accelerating with ease and effectiveness.

Arm tackles against Hillman are hopeless. This is one of the most fun highlight reels I have ever watched. On some of his long touchdown runs, receivers are throwing up touchdown signals when Hillman still has three defenders to beat, and they are right.

But again, outside of perhaps Navy, Hillman will not be an FBS-level quarterback. Most of his passes would be intercepted, and it is not a complicated passing offense he used in high school. There is not much zip on these balls. Fans should dismiss thoughts of him becoming a preferred quarterback.

Defensive highlights begin at the 5:17 mark. Shorter, I suspect, both because Hillman prefers offense and because those highlights are generally more dramatic.

First defensive play, he is sagging off a slot receiver. Screen pass to the receiver wide of the slot, ball carrier gains some steam. Hillman plants him 10 yards down the field with such suddenness, a literal laugh out loud was heard in this office.

That acceleration mentioned earlier helps Hillman make up ground when chasing down ball carriers, even if simply trying to work through the tackle box.

It is not hard to imagine that acceleration helping Hillman catch up to a receiver who has beaten him downfield, especially if that pass is at all underthrown.

A physical defensive back, far more so than most.

This is not the most elite of preps football. The field conditions give that away. In that respect, maybe there is a comparison to Jack Kiser, and if that is the impact Hillman delivers at Notre Dame, it would be quite the recruiting win.

This does not seem to be a passing-heavy level of football, so his coverage skills would presumably need some work, likely his route-running, as well. But the Irish have three cornerbacks for 2023 and four other receivers in this class. There’s time.

Things We Learned This Season: Notre Dame’s culture created progress, though inexperience begat losses

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If the transfer portal window has genuinely changed anything about college football, it is when one season feels like it has ended and the next has begun. That transition used to wait until mid-January, but now the transfer portal window opening on the Monday after conference championship weekend kickstarts the offseason ramp-up to spring-practice impressions from new arrivals, which obviously creates the summer’s anticipation and then preseason hype. Thus, before the portal leads to a new quarterback at Notre Dame and a couple of receivers that create nine months of hopeful hypotheticals, let’s ponder what was learned in 2022 …

A talented football team, one largely “driven” by its offensive and defensive lines, one led by a first-time head coach not yet well-versed in game-management challenges, and one lacking the types of perimeter playmakers that raise ceilings in college football this decade.

By the end of the 2022 season, Notre Dame was what it was expected to be, even though its 8-4 record was a bit disappointing way of reaching this expected end. The No. 21 Irish should never have been ranked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, not when replacing the experience that comes with 22 career starts from a quarterback and three decades of head-coaching mishaps, the former again a need after Drew Pyne’s entry into the transfer portal but one that may be solved with a modern-day shortcut.

But at the core, Notre Dame was exactly what first-time head coach Marcus Freeman wanted it to be, not a team reliant on a single star but an “O-line and D-line driven program,” a phrasing he first trotted out early in preseason practices and one that held on well into November, though this space never quite found the right way to format it. That being the Irish focus made last Saturday’s 38-27 loss at USC all the more frustrating for Freeman, because Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams’ repeated evasions of Notre Dame’s defensive line eventually rendered the offensive line’s greatest strength, run blocking, less an asset.

“As I just told the team, I’m sure everybody is disappointed, from me on down,” Freeman said that night. “You want to see how you compare against a team like that when you’re playing at your best. We didn’t play at our best. …

“They are a dang good football team, really good. We have a really good football team, and that’s just a disappointment. You want to see when two really good football teams both play really well, you want to see what the outcome is.”

The loss may have made Freeman a bit more self-critical than was deserved, as the Irish forced Williams’ to grow into a headline-dominant star a bit quicker than he had in the season to date, a standalone star for only a week before a hamstring limited the Heisman Trophy finalist on Friday night in the Pac 12 title game against Utah. But Freeman’s point was valid, Notre Dame was not at its best at USC.

For that matter, college football fans were deprived of any such moment all season when it came to the Irish. “Two really good football teams both playing really well” never quite came to be. Either Notre Dame’s gameplan was too conservative to allow for excellence (the 21-10 loss at Ohio State), the opponent was utterly outmatched along both sides of the line (the 35-14 win vs Clemson) or one star forced the Irish out of their ideal game (Williams). While Notre Dame fans relished beating the constant-nemesis Tigers on Nov. 5, the lack of any heavyweight bout in Freeman’s debut campaign may be regretted in years to come, if for no other reason than the memory to look back upon but more likely because testing Freeman’s resolve in the biggest of moments would have been a welcomed Irish luxury in this down-and-up season.

That is in years to come, though.

This year, Freeman’s naivete caught up with him in one regard or another first against Marshall and then against Stanford, the kinds of games Brian Kelly excelled at winning in his final five seasons in South Bend. It is not a welcomed excuse, but such missteps are common from first-year head coaches, especially ones coming from the defensive side of the ball. The instincts needed to press the right buttons on a Saturday afternoon come with time and frustration.

The surprise of the Irish season may have been that those two frustrations in Notre Dame Stadium did not ruin the entire year.

Fifth-year left guard, four-year starter and two-time captain Jarrett Patterson expressed that frustration immediately after the Irish fell to Marshall, Patterson playing on an injured foot that undoubtedly added to his dismay. As Notre Dame lined up to sing the Alma Mater after the game, Patterson instead headed up the tunnel, jersey and pads already removed.

In his defense, the Irish had lost at home only once in Patterson’s entire career, what to do following a loss was not ingrained in his muscle memory. Also, Notre Dame had just been beaten along both lines; his frustration was well-founded.

Yet, the Irish rallied, inexplicable Stanford shocker aside. They beat up Clemson as badly, if not worse, as Marshall had beaten up Patterson & Co. two months earlier. USC needed Williams’ escapes because Notre Dame’s defensive line had the Trojans’ offensive line beaten. Freeman’s engines arrived for the Irish this season, even if a couple weeks later than ideal.

“I’m proud of the way our team continued to progress, continued to fight, continued to get better,” Freeman said. “… We didn’t win today, they played their hearts out, and that’s what I told them in the locker room.

“I’m proud of the way you played, because you never quit, you continue to get better.”

Plenty of teams lose that program-wide drive toward progress after their season goes awry. Immediate examples were seen this year in College Station, Chestnut Hill and East Lansing.

“Shoot, after week two, you could have went an opposite direction,” Freeman said. “After week six, when we lost to Stanford, it could have gone in a bad direction. But these leaders and these guys continue to fight.”

Disappointment has become the norm at Stanford, Wisconsin and Florida. Only time will tell if new coaches will change that. Freeman did not have that mandate, courtesy of Kelly’s resurgence following the 2016 debacle, and Notre Dame’s response to losing to Stanford suggests there need not be panic or continued frustration following the loss in Los Angeles. The Gator Bowl matchup with No. 19 South Carolina on Dec. 30 (3:30 ET; ABC) can serve to prove that to some regard, but not definitively given the increasing exhibition nature of bowl games.

“They’ll fight after this one,” he said. “It hurts, because you gave it your all, but our leaders will keep us together.”

The season-opening loss at Ohio State made it clear the Irish lack the playmakers to hang with college football’s best in 2022, hence some transfer portal focuses, and the botched two-minute drill against Stanford further exposed the inexperience at Notre Dame’s two most-critical positions, but the Irish did not falter after either occasion.

When Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick promoted Marcus Freeman, he cited a want to further the culture in the Irish locker room. Its response to those losses may have confirmed that culture more than winning ever could. Patterson’s public frustrations embodied it, but the wins that came after proved it.

Holding onto that culture and even furthering it this offseason will be Freeman’s next challenge, beginning with the thought of importing a starter at the position most focused on come any given Saturday. Not just in the Gator Bowl, but for 2023.

Leftovers & Links: Transfer portal opens fast, but slow for Notre Dame … for now; Mayer & Foskey status TBD

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The transfer portal is open.

The difference between this year and the previous few years is that there is a set window for undergraduate players to enter the database better and more ominously known as the portal. And that window began today, Dec. 5.

There was uncertainty about how this opening day would go. Like the first moments of National Signing Day, with announcement after announcement after announcement? With a trickle throughout the day and the week? Would players be out of the portal (again, it’s just a database) as quickly as they entered it?

Through half a day of it, the answers are all somewhere in between.

For Notre Dame’s concerns, only two players have jumped into the portal thus far today: junior quarterback Drew Pyne, as expected since his announcement on Friday, and freshman cornerback Jayden Bellamy. More will assuredly follow in the coming month, likely this week if not even yet Monday night.

“We’ve had individual meetings with a lot of our players,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Sunday night. “Really just talked to them about taking it a little bit at a time to kind of figure out their plans for the transfer portal, for playing in the bowl game and other decisions they have to make.”

Some players already have homes — most notably, Phil Jurkovec may finally get his return to Notre Dame Stadium next season, date to be determined, having already committed to Pittsburgh — while others are piling up. The quarterbacks draw the most attention, and understandably so, with North Carolina State’s Devin Leary joining the fray on Monday, perhaps a name for Irish fans to note.

The possibility of Leary, of course, is presumably part of why Pyne is transferring and not playing in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 against No. 19 South Carolina (3:30 ET; ABC). Along with names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong (though the Syracuse rumors around Armstrong are noticeable and logical), Freeman has quarterback candidates to chase and intends to do so.

“We had a conversation this week, myself and Drew, as well as many of the other players that we have on our team in terms of our intentions, my intentions into certain positions, look for transfers,” Freeman said. “I’m always looking for ways to enhance our roster. I always want to be up front and honest, and I was with Drew, told him that we would possibly look at taking a transfer quarterback.

“I did not want him to leave, but he made the decision to enter the portal, and I definitely respect his decision.”

With the quarterback carousel moving at lightning speed — Michigan’s Cade McNamara to Iowa and Jurkovec to Pittsburgh already underscoring how quickly that specific position will develop each offseason; Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei is widely expected to land somewhere on the West Coast — Pyne skipping the Gator Bowl makes sense. He needs to secure his next position now, not in January.

“What he has done for our program, the ability for him to step in week 2 and throughout the season, he did a tremendous job,” Freeman said.

In Pyne’s stead, Freeman said sophomore quarterback and initial 2022 starter Tyler Buchner is “full go.” Now, let’s add in this space’s continued disclaimer that coaches are almost always more optimistic publicly about injury timelines than they should be, and all initial expectations for Buchner’s return from a serious shoulder sprain, one that necessitated surgery, ruled out a bowl game. But, Buchner has participated in Notre Dame’s two practices this week.

“We still have three quarterbacks on the roster,” Freeman said. “You have Tyler Buchner, Steve Angeli and Ron Powlus. All have been practicing the past two days that we practiced and could see any of the three play. They’ll all be ready to play.”

Neither junior tight end Michael Mayer nor senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey partook in those practices, something Freeman said was intentional as Notre Dame gears some of its bowl prep toward developing younger players. It also gives the two biggest NFL draft candidates on the Irish roster a chance to consider if they’ll play against the Gamecocks.

“We had a plan to sit out some guys as recovery for these last two practices of development and trying to really focus on the younger guys and developing the younger guys on our team,” Freeman said. “So I told both of those guys just take the week and take a couple of days to really think about what they want to do for their future.”

Freeman outright acknowledging the possibility of Mayer and/or Foskey skipping the bowl game represents both the changing of the times and the program’s understanding of the logic to such a decision.

“We will discuss it sometime this week, probably early this week.”

ON JAYDEN BELLAMY
Bellamy was one of three cornerbacks signed by Nore Dame last recruiting cycle, and while the other two blossomed into starters — Benjamin Morrison snagging five interceptions in the final two Irish home games and Jaden Mickey stepping in for Cam Hart at USC — Bellamy never saw the field.

With Hart returning next season, though missing the bowl game due to a shoulder injury, Notre Dame’s top three cornerbacks for 2023 are established, and there remain three sophomores on the depth chart for Bellamy to compete with and five defensive backs committed in the recruiting class that should sign on the dotted line on Dec. 21, when the early signing period commences.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback

UPDATE: ON Osita Ekwonu
Senior defensive end Osita Ekwonu joined Bellamy and Pyne in the portal late Monday, finishing his Irish career with six tackles in 16 appearances, two of those tackles coming on Senior Day against Boston College, his only defensive snaps in his Notre Dame career. In his previous 15 games, Ekwonu had appeared on only special teams.

An Achilles injury sidelined Ekwonu in 2021, costing him some traction on the Irish depth chart amid its most talented position group.

His transfer can illustrate some of the folly around transfer portal discourse, something this space somewhat and regrettably encouraged with an embedded tweet on Monday. When pointing out only half — give or take — of portal entrants eventually find homes, it is too easy to ignore that many entrants are former walk-ons looking to elongate their playing careers or graduates who would have needed to transfer following their undergraduate careers all along, including long before terrifying concepts like a “transfer portal” existed. Ekwonu would have transferred 10 years ago, too, but his next stop always would have been uncertain.

Those numbers also neglect to remember there are more players than ever eligible thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver. The vaguest of math suggests it is up to 20 percent more than usual roster size allocates for. As a result, some players are inevitably not going to have homes even if they want to keep playing.

Maybe that will not be Ekwonu; the intention here is not to suggest his career is over. The intention is to remind that Ekwonu would have been transferring somewhere as soon as graduate students were allowed immediate eligibility after a transfer, a rule instituted in 2006.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury

ON TIMING
This outgoing roster flux will continue for a week or two, and then there may be a few more departures immediately after the bowl game, though most players will want to get a head start on the transfer process.

Freeman is in communication with all those weighing options, so few possibilities should catch him completely off-guard, but he is not pressuring players to decide today or tomorrow.

“We haven’t set a firm date, deadline, but we told them, … we need to kind of have an idea of what the future plans are for certain guys,” Freeman said. “For our guys that are deciding if they’re going to play or opt out for the NFL draft, they understand the sooner the better. I just didn’t want them to have to rush into a decision.”

Players debating the NFL draft or another season at Notre Dame are more likely to make that decision following the bowl game, completing the second wave of outgoing decisions.

The timing of incoming transfer possibilities will reveal much about what Freeman has or has not been able to accomplish in working with the academic side of the University in the past year. The greatest struggle for Notre Dame admitting many incoming transfers has not been their academic standing, although that itself is a clear hurdle, but the delay in academic decision-makers communicating the academic standing to potential transfers.

Traffic in the portal moves fast; making highly-sought playmakers wait to hear if they will lose one semester of academic progress or two if they transfer to Notre Dame is a sure way to lose those players.

So if a receiver or a quarterback — undergraduates, to be clear — commits to the Irish this week, even if there is no official Notre Dame welcome, that would indicate Freeman has made headway.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30
Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility
Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need
CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023
Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive shortcomings again highlighted by an explosive counterpart
Chris Terek’s flip from Wisconsin gives Notre Dame five OL commits in third straight class
Highlights: USC 38, Notre Dame 27 — Arm, legs and foot of Caleb Williams too much for Irish upset bid
USC defense, Caleb Williams’ Heisman-worthy performance never give Notre Dame an opening

OUTSIDE READING
College football’s transfer portal window is open. Buckle up for a frantic 45 days
Several Stanford players set to transfer as search for David Shaw’s replacement continues
Transferring Western Michigan D-lineman Fiske set to visit Notre Dame
Inside Luke Fickell’s move to Wisconsin, why he decided to leave Cincinnati now

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.