The Tennessee Volunteers put up a pretty good fight against South Carolina today to close out the most brutal part of their schedule but came up short, falling 24-38 to the Gamecocks.
Unlike the past two games against Alabama and Georgia, the Vols looked like a team on equal footing as its opponent. They put up 404 yards to Carolina's 435 and passed for 312, nearly 100 more through the air than the 'Cocks. They had more first downs. They had the same number of third down conversions and converted two of three fourth downs. They scored more points in this game than they had in any other game this season with the exception of the season-opener against FCS UT-Martin and the overtime game against UAB.
Unfortunately, they also had four turnovers, including two fumbles on sacks by Matt Simms and a pick six by Tyler Bray. Those three turnovers resulted in 21 South Carolina points in a 14-point game.
Apart from the turnovers and some general soft defense, UT really did look like a much-improved team today. Like many games this season, they went to the locker room at halftime in great shape. When USC turned one of Simms's fumble-sacks and one of Bray's pass attempts into two TDs to begin the second half, it looked and felt just like so many of the other games UT has been blown out in the second half this season. This one, though, was in fact different, because UT kept moving the ball after that and scored two more TDs, thanks to excellent passing by Bray and fantastic receiving by both Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones. Ultimately, South Carolina found Alshon Jeffery (who the defense had held in check for most of the game), and Marcus Lattimore wore out the defense, and they put the game away. But it wasn't the blow out it threatened to be right after the halftime break. Yay for Dooley's "mental, intellectual, and emotional stamina."
And what about Denarius Moore? Dude finished with six catches for 228 yards, a performance probably not seen by a UT WR since Kelly Washington torched LSU way back in when, 2001? Jones, too, was terrific, making numerous great plays on third downs to keep the chains moving. And the fake punt conversion by Chad Cunningham? Fun.
Who had the better day between Matt Simms and Tyler Bray? The numbers don't really say: Simms was 10-13 for 153 yards, one TD, and two horrid fumbles that the opponent capitalized on for 14 points. Bray was 9-15 for 159 yards, two TDs, and one horrid pick six that gave the opponent seven points immediately. From that, I can't honestly say who did better today, but I can't shake a feeling that the team just seemed to have that extra something when Bray was the QB. In the game thread, I was not a fan of the QB switch, and I said that just before the pick six. But after seeing Bray play the entire second half, and seeing the team make a run at actually coming from behind on an opponent in the second half, well, I change my mind. I don't know that Bray's won the starting spot or anything, but I really like his upside. And besides, I can't think of a new QB who hasn't thrown a pick six his first season. Simms had his earlier.
Bottom line, the team looked better this week. We scored more points on offense, and the defense at times stood strong. Would the outcome have been different if not for those 21 points South Carolina got off our turnovers? No one knows for sure, but you'd think so. The game against Alabama last week deprived us of any evidence of progress or improvement, but this one did not. And with the most difficult part of the season behind us, there's reason to expect more and better for the last four games of the season.