And on the 111th day since he had last played live football, he accounted for 7 touchdowns (including two for the other team!) and was named Gator Bowl MVP.
ND’s 45 to 38 victory over South Carolina mirrored their rollercoaster 2022 season and Tyler Buchner’s three passing, two running TDs, and two pick six performance merits a closer look. Indeed his day was reminiscent of an amusement park thrill ride.
Here is a play by play.
Keyed by a Blake Fisher block that opened a lane, on TD #1, Buchner who was still shaking off the rust in his passing arm, displayed cat like quickness on the ground as he wove his way through the South Carolina defense 15 yards on a designed run up the middle. The play capped off a 10 play 50-yard drive on ND’s second possession of the day. The score tied things 7-7 at the 5:54 mark of the first quarter.
Buchner’s wild ride was underway.
Five minutes and 10 seconds of game time later with the Irish now trailing 14-7, Buchner showed that he is not immune to the tipped pass problem that plagued Drew Pyne during his 10 starts, and it was costly. On 3rd and four near midfield, Buchner was looking to hit Mithell Evans in the flat, ten yards up field. But the pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and freshman cornerback DQ Smith came up with the ball and returned it 47 yards. Buchner’s had the only shot at Smith on the return, but the dving tackle attempt missed and the Gamecocks led 21-7, the score going into the second quarter.
The teams traded field goals and then, Buchner came up with his first TD pass of the day. After the SC kickoff, the Irish took over at the 25. Buchner faked a jet sweep toss to Matt Salerno and found Logan Diggs who had crossed under Salerno into the opposite flat. Diggs got a key block up field from Lorenzo Styles and outraced everyone else 75 yards to paydirt. Good play design, good play call, excellent execution, and ND went into halftime trailing by just one score, 17-24.
The pace of Buchner’s wild day and the nail-biting among ND fans picked up in the second half.
At the 10:28 mark of the third, the Irish tied the game up on a five play, 68-yard drive. Buchner’s scoring play came when the ND offensive line was beginning to assert themselves, as the Irish offense had reeled off three consecutive chunk plays on two runs by Estime and a 25-yard reception by Jayden Thomas. Buchner’s 11 yard run to paydirt came as he pulled the ball out of the belly of Chris Tyree sweeping to the nearside of the field and then took off in the opposite direction behind the pulling Lugg and Fisher. Thomas also threw a key block and Buchner again showed cat like running instinct as he worked his way virtually untouched into the end zone. Play design, play call and execution again were all on the same page for the Irish, and Buchner looked to be gaining confidence at 24-24.
After South Carolina had retaken the lead 31-24 on a really close to out off bounds TD catch, (was that white chalk that I saw? Hmmmmm), Buchner went right back to work. After a short punt that was nearly blocked by a diving Jack Kiser, the Irish took over at the Gamecock 44 with :31 left in the third quarter. Braden Lenzy flashed his speed on a corner route and off a play action deep drop, Buchner delivered his best pass of the day, a bullseye bomb to Lenzy that dropped into his hands at the five with a clear path and the score was knotted at 31 with the 44-yard TD pass.
The Irish defense got the ball back for the Irish but at the 6:54 mark of the 3rd, the carnival ride day hit another big bump. On third and 4 from the Irish 31, a scrambling Buchner tried to force a short shovel pass to Jayden Thomas as he was being sacked. The pass would have given the Irish a first down. Instead it was off the mark and tipped into the hands of the South Carolina defender. Mr. Buchner’s 2nd interception on the day.
Fortunately the Irish defense for the most part shut Spencer Rattler and the Gamecock offense down in the second half. A three and out ensued and the Irish were back in business looking for a tie game.
After ND’s fake punt conversion play on 4th and 4 from their own 33, ND took its first lead of the day at the 12:41 mark of the 4th when Logan Diggs got loose off right tackle and scampered 39 yards to the end zone. At this point the Irish were dominating the game on both sides of the football.
After yet another three and out for South Carolina, ND started their next drive at their own 40. Mr. Buchner directed an Irish march right down the field. After three Buchner runs and a 26-yard scamper by Estime, ND fans could almost taste a two-score margin, as the Irish had the ball 1st and goal at the 7.
That is when Buchner’s wild ride almost tragically, went backwards.
With Evans motioning to the far side of the field the Irish had four receivers to the right. Evans ran a crossing route three yards deep into the end zone and got a step on his defender. Buchner saw the opening and fired a bullet to his tight end. What Buchner didn’t see though was Gamecock DB O’Donnell Fortune standing in zone coverage at the goal line. Fortune lunged to his left and picked the pass off. It was Mr. Buchner’s third interception of the day, and the play wasn’t over. 12 seconds later with a caravan of teammates at his side Fortune was in the ND end zone. Bad play call, bad execution. Buchner had now “accounted” for six touchdowns, two running, two passing and two pick sixes. With 7:42 remaining the score was tied at 38.
And then Buchner’s wild ride, with just one more act left, reversed, in a perfectly executed grand finale.
After the SC kickoff the Irish started their last drive of the day from their own 20. The running game, with chunk gains was now firmly in charge and Buchner hit two short passes to aid the charge.
With 1:38 on the clock, it was 3rd and 7 and the Irish had penetrated to the 16-yard line. ND was now well within Blake Grupe field goal range. With one more shot at things, Tommy Rees dialed up the perfect play call and Tyler Buchner dialed up some perfect execution.
ND was in a two tight end formation with Estime as the lone set back. Buchner is under center and Styles was detached to Buchner’s left. South Carolina, expecting another run, rushed five. A play action fake to Estime and Jayden Thomas’s motion to the right drew the attention of everyone tasked with defending the pass. Both safeties initially step in the direction of Thomas. This allowed Evans to leak off the right side of the formation into the left side flat nine yards up field. The closest defender was five yards away. Buchner pitched, Evans caught and the Irish led by the final 45-38.
On the day Buchner completed 18 of 33 for 274. He rushed for 77 (sack adjusted) yards. The redshirt Sophomore ran for two TDs, passed for three but threw two pick sixes. He was selected as the game MVP.
A wild ride indeed.
Post game when Marcus Freeman found his QB amidst the happy bedlam, he embraced his signal caller and seemed to whisper, “I’m so proud of you.”
The Irish will now take bowl game momentum into the Spring. With the likely addition of a veteran transfer to the Irish QB room, the spring will almost certainly will include a competition at the quarterback position. That is a competition that Buchner will not be favored win.
But until then, Mr. Buchner’s wild ride, or better said, wildly entertaining ride will take a well deserved rest.