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Notre Dame Football

Notebook: Preparing for Enigmatic South Carolina Offense, Coping with Notre Dame Opt Outs

December 29, 2022

On Dec. 30, Notre Dame will face a South Carolina team in the Gator Bowl that’s a bit of a mystery. 

The No. 19 Gamecocks experienced an up-and-down season this fall with losses to a sub-.500 Florida team to go along with wins over No. 5 Clemson and No. 7 Clemson. They also have 11 players sitting out who have either entered the transfer portal or are preparing for the 2023 NFL Draft. 

With so much in-season roster turnover, it may be difficult to prepare for South Carolina, so the Irish have taken a simple approach: expect the Gamecocks to fire on all cylinders and adjust accordingly. 

“When you prepare to play a team, you want to prepare to play the best — what you're seeing them put on film being the best,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “In the last two games, they've shown they can beat any team in the country. That’s our preparation, that's our challenges and that's the team we're going to face. We'll see what happens tomorrow.”

When clicking, the South Carolina offense presents a potent challenge to opposing defenses. The Gamecocks hung 63 points on Tennessee, with quarterback Spencer Rattler throwing for 438 yards and six touchdown passes in a blowout victory. 

Yet this same offense managed just six points the week prior against a Florida defense that allows 28.8 points per game, which ranks 91st out of 131 FBS programs.

In 2022, South Carolina averaged 31.7 points per game, which ranks 42nd overall. The Gamecocks excel in the red zone, where they convert 70.6% of red zone opportunities into touchdowns, the 19th-best mark in the nation. 

Meanwhile, the Irish continue to struggle defensively when backed up into their own territory. Notre Dame gives up a touchdown 78.8% of the time. Only Arizona allowed touchdowns at a higher rate.

“They're a very talented team,” linebacker JD Bertrand said. “They have the ability to go in and out of different personnel groups, and also be able to go into that wildcat look. [We need] to able to prepare properly, and then also be ourselves and being able to make sure we're fundamentally sound as we go into this game after not playing for a few weeks.”

South Carolina, however, struggled to run the ball this fall, averaging 123.3 yards per game. The Gamecocks should be even worse in the Gator Bowl.

Running back Marshawn Lloyd entered the transfer portal after leading the team in rushing with 573 yards and nine touchdowns in nine games. The same goes for 238-pound tight end Jaheim Bell, who was used as a “Swiss Army Knife” on offense. He ran for 261 yards and three scores in 12 games and recently announced his commitment to transfer to Florida State. 

The loss of such dynamic players could impact the Gamecock’s ability to lean on multiple personnel inside the red zone and hurt their overall offensive efficiency in short-yardage situations.

Even still, South Carolina has the potential to remain explosive on offense in the Gator Bowl, especially without Notre Dame defensive linemen Jayson Ademilola and Isaiah Foskey rushing Rattler.  

Respecting Decisions to Play or Opt Out

It can be a bit difficult to evaluate non-playoff bowl games with so many players opting to sit out to prepare for the NFL Draft or entering the transfer portal. 

Those players are just making the best decision they can for themselves, whether it be for financial or health reasons or both. In 2022, all the coaching staff and fans can really do is support those decisions.

“When they make a decision, I support them 100 percent,” Freeman said. “Michael Mayer, I love you. If you want my opinion, I would love for you to come back to play in the bowl game. I'd love for you to come back for your senior year. 

“He made a decision to go to the NFL, and I hugged him and told him I loved him. I'm rooting you on and I can't wait to watch you do great things in NFL. Same thing with Isaiah Foskey.”

Now, it’s also fair to celebrate prospective NFL players who still decide to suit up without criticizing others. With millions of dollars potentially on the line, it must be a difficult decision to make no matter what option they choose. 

“The way I looked at it is I have more opportunity to play with this group, and for me, personally to pounce on that opportunity despite all the injuries,” offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson said. “Injuries come and go with the memories, those last forever. 

“I really had no thought of opting out or not practicing or anything like that. I want to finish this thing off the right way and play my last game as a Notre Dame football player.”

Freeman Officially Enters His Second Year at Notre Dame

Notre Dame announced the promotion of Freeman to head coach on Dec. 3, 2021. Four weeks later the 35-year-old led the No. 5 Irish against No. 9 Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Needless to say, it was an overwhelming experience.

“Whew. I'm sure my emotions were all over the place,” Freeman said. “I remember having a press conference next to Mike Gundy. It was obviously surreal.”

The Irish, of course, blew a 21-point first-half lead and lost to the Cowboys, 37-35. 

Even with all the opt-outs and an exhausting early signing period in 2022, the coaching staff should be significantly more prepared for South Carolina on Friday.

“A year later, we have a practice structure, we have a plan that we looked at for this year compared to what we did last year,” Freeman said. “But how can we enhance what we did last year? 

“We'll get a chance to go out and play an extremely talented football team and be able to reflect, be able to look back and see where can we enhance our preparation and make sure the next bowl opportunity we have we're in a better situation.”

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