Notre Dame has a dangerous quarterback on its roster right now. If nothing else, Friday’s 45-38 win against No. 19 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl confirmed Irish rising junior Tyler Buchner brings entertainment whenever he walks onto a football field.
His three touchdown passes — including a gorgeous deep ball to receiver Braden Lenzy to cap Lenzy’s career — and two touchdown scampers raised the ceiling for Notre Dame when Buchner is dialed in. His two interceptions returned for touchdowns showed why some of those offensive heroics were and would be needed if Buchner remains the Irish starter.
“He’s special,” head coach Marcus Freeman said, not meaning it ambiguously though it can be noted special is as ambiguous a compliment as dangerous is.
With all due respect to Drew Pyne — and plenty of respect is due after he led Notre Dame to eight wins as the sudden starter after Buchner’s week-two shoulder sprain sidelined him until the holiday weekend — those were not words applied to him on the field. The only other time this season the Irish gained more than 500 yards came against Gene Chizik’s tragedy of a defense at North Carolina. Gaining 558 yards against South Carolina, even a somewhat-depleted South Carolina, was a far more impressive performance.
Though, again, it was needed only because Buchner’s mistakes kept the Gamecocks afloat.
Tyler Buchner is the only FBS player over the last 25 seasons with 2 passing touchdowns, 2 rushing touchdowns, and 2 pick sixes in any game, bowl or otherwise.
Notre Dame picks up its first bowl win since the 2019 Camping World Bowl. pic.twitter.com/L6orgf7EvQ
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 31, 2022
If this week unfolds as expected and the Irish secure Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman through the transfer portal, consternation about the quarterback depth chart at Notre Dame will be unnecessary for the first time since … 2018 with Ian Book supplanting Brandon Wimbush or, perhaps more accurately, since 2016 when the confidence in the quarterback depth chart actually and counter-intuitively undid the entire season. With that caveat, this likely though still hypothetical depth chart would be the most talented since the 2012 title run with current offensive coordinator Tommy Rees perfectly complementing sophomore Everett Golson.
Without Buchner’s Gator Bowl showing — 274 passing yards with a 54.5 percent completion rate and 82 rushing yards on 10 carries, sacks adjusted — that confidence would have remained lacking until he had a chance to reassert himself, a chance that may not come until 2024.
Whoever leads Notre Dame at quarterback, the Irish strength will remain the rushing game. With three starters returning along the offensive line — for that matter, three starters spread across the line at left tackle, center and right tackle, so there will be no half of the line that warrants fretting — and at least two proven running backs, the Irish offense should remain ground-focused, as has always been Rees’ want.
“When you have the ability to run the ball and the other team knows you’re going to run it, that’s when you know things are rolling,” Freeman said, echoing his postgame comments from much of November. “They knew we were going to run the ball.”
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 30, 2022
Of Notre Dame’s 42 rushing attempts, not a single one resulted in a loss of yardage. Averaging 6.83 yards per carry is a recipe for complete offensive dominance. Indeed, eight of the 14 Irish drives qualified as “quality,” including their last four. One of those may have resulted in a dramatic interception at the goal line returned for a touchdown, but it was a quality possession, all the same.
And, for those taking the longest view in the room, it led to the singular tweet of the long weekend.
So appreciative for this program, this staff, the way it’s run.. and the relentless effort our guys show. Love our O-Staff… and all the experts on Twitter, too. Best things ahead.. run the damn ball forever, got it guys. pic.twitter.com/U6j5FhCiZC
— Tommy Rees (@T_Rees11) December 31, 2022
Buchner misread the defense on that interception, simply enough. Rees’ play call led to an open Mitchell Evans in the end zone, and if Buchner had lofted the pass over the Gamecock defensive back, the world would have applauded Rees’ guts to use the run to set up the pass.
As it did a drive later.
“The greatest thing about it was to be able to use that situation as another example for the future,” Freeman said. “The ability of that offense to have that happen, look at [Buchner] on the sideline and say, ‘In about five minutes or two minutes, you’re going to go right back out there and you’re going to march down the field and score.’”
Buchner is capable of both those drives. With time, the former should happen less and easy passes to Evans or deep passes to Lenzy-like receivers should happen more.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 30, 2022
Evans may have been the other greatest revelation of the victory in Jacksonville. No Michael Mayer? No problem when the sophomore snags three of four targets for 39 yards and the game-winning score.
Notre Dame’s ninth win of Marcus Freeman’s debut campaign only answered questions, not creating any new ones. Could Freeman coach his way to a comeback? For the first time in his career, a two-score comeback occurred. Could Buchner’s good outweigh his bad? Yes, barely. Will Tight End U have another star tight end in 2023? Was there ever any doubt?
We’re Notre Dame.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) December 31, 2022