The No. 19 South Carolina Gamecocks provided some fireworks but ultimately couldn't keep pace with the No. 21 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, falling 45-38 in the Gator Bowl after a back-and-forth affair that failed to go the Gamecocks' way despite a promising start.
South Carolina got the game off to a rollicking start, opting to receive and cashing in on that decision by marching down the field thanks to tight end Nate Adkins and receiver Xavier Legette, who reached the end zone on a screen pass to quickly make it 7-0 in front of what sounded like a home crowd. The Gamecock defense then forced a three-and-out to keep the momentum going, but receiver Ahmarean Brown inexplicably fumbled after a catch to give the Irish a do-over on their first possession. Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner, in his first start since suffering a shoulder injury earlier this season, made the Gamecocks pay, scampering into the end zone on a 15-yard draw to knot the game at 7.
South Carolina got back to work on its next possession with the introduction of Dakereon Joyner rotating in at quarterback, who gave the offense a spark with some trickeration and mobility. Notre Dame’s defense stiffened, though, and appeared to have a red zone stop and an upcoming field goal attempt when GOATed punter Kai Kroeger tossed a touchdown strike to Hunter Rogers, making it 14-7 USC in another display of #BeamerBall.
The fun kept going for South Carolina on Notre Dame’s next drive, as a Buchner pass was tipped into the waiting arms of DQ Smith, who showed off some savvy running to return it 53 yards to push the advantage to 21-7 as the first quarter wound to a close.
The Irish got back on the board to open the scoring in the second quarter, adding a 37-yard field goal to pull within 21-10 on a drive that was something of a victory for the Gamecocks after a couple huge throws by Buchner kept the Irish alive and moving. South Carolina countered with a 45-yard Mitch Jeter field goal of its own, but Notre Dame quickly struck back with a 75-yard catch-and-run by Logan Diggs that made the score 24-17.
After another masterful punt by Kroeger pinned the Irish deep and the Gamecock defense escorted them off the field, the Gamecocks then engaged in a very strange offensive sequence that ultimately ended with Spencer Rattler hunting for a deep ball and tossing an interception to close the first half and leave the score at 24-17.
The teams traded punts to open the second half before Notre Dame tied it up on another quarterback draw by Buchner, a play which the Gamecocks have seemingly never successfully defended in school history. South Carolina struck back with as good a throw and catch as you'll ever see on the collegiate level, when Rattler connected with Legette on a 42-yard strike to go back up 31-24. Unfortunately, the Irish had an answer, this time with a 44-yard catch, and followed that up with another score to open the fourth quarter, this time courtesy of another Diggs run.
Now trailing 38-31, and forced to punt, the Gamecocks looked to be out of the game until a miraculous 100-yard pick six from O'Donnell Fortune tied the score once again at 38. Unfortunately for South Carolina, the quick score meant its gassed defense was back on the field, and the Irish leaned on their rushing attack to get back in the red zone and eventually the end zone, thanks to a 16-yard reception to Mitchell Evans.
From there, the Gamecocks' potential tying drive descended into anarchy, with unforced errors and ref involvement, so the Irish were able to kneel out the 45-38 victory.