Once again, the Tennessee Volunteers came out swinging and roared to a hot start on offense, this time against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Vols scored a touchdown on their first two possessions and led by as much as 17-0 in the first half. But in an all-too-familiar narrative, the Vols got complacent on both sides of the ball and let South Carolina back in the game, as the Gamecocks tied it up at 17 and then 24 in the second half.
But the Vols were able to tack on a field goal late to take a 27-24 lead, and Tennessee forced a fumble after South Carolina converted on a 3rd-and-10 to seal the game with only a handful of seconds left. The win was ugly, but it was still a win for a Vols squad that improved their record to above .500 for the first time in a month and a half.
Here are three things we learned from tonight's victory:
1. Play-calling is still an issue
The Vols came out strong on offense and looked like they were on their way to a big night offensively. But once again, play-calling became suspect as the game progressed, and despite the Vols facing the SEC's worst run defense, they looked more like an air raid offense in the second half.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and head coach Butch Jones either didn't adjust to what South Carolina's defense threw at them or they became comfortable with another lead once again. Either way, the play-calling looked similar to losses to Oklahoma and Arkansas earlier in the season. The difference here is that South Carolina just isn't a very good overall team and couldn't capitalize as well as those two other teams.
The Vols only gained 153 rushing yards against the SEC's worst run defense. Tennessee was held to just 17 rushing yards in the second half and looked incapable of getting push from the offensive line. That and the run calls were uninspiring.
Just when it looked like Tennessee had escaped their bad play calling from early in the season, it reared its head once again.
2. Alvin Kamara needs the ball more
On Tennessee's first offensive possession of the game, running back Alvin Kamara ripped off 20-yard reception and 23-yard run and capped off the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. Then he disappeared for most of the rest of the game, reappearing to score on an 11-yard screen pass to give the Vols a 24-17 lead in the third quarter. But other than that play, Kamara was largely invisible on offense.
This staff absolutely has to start getting Kamara the all more. Kamara touched the ball just 7 times in this game, a familiar theme for Kamara this season in close games. He handled the ball only a few times against Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas, and tonight was more of the same. Kamara is dynamic when in the open field, and it's time he's given more opportunities to make plays.
3. Resiliency has improved
Butch Jones said earlier this week he wanted to hear more about this team's resiliency, and they've earned that after struggling with it early in the season. Malik Foreman, a player often criticized by Vol fans and media, was the player who stripped the ball to win it for the Vols. Pharoh Cooper, who torched the Vols for nearly 300 total yards and 4 scores last season, was held to 4 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown.
This Vols team has learned how to play better late in games after what was a very discouraging start in that regard. Big defensive plays secured wins against Georgia and South Carolina, and it really speaks to the determination and grit of this Vols squad. That wasn't there as much to begin the season.
Are the Vols still flawed? Absolutely. But they're finally learning how to close out games, even if it is against weaker opponents. A win is a win, and a clutch play is a clutch play no matter who it is against.