When Texas A&M took the field in overtime down 38-35, the Vols were very much in the national championship race. Three weeks later, after a loss to South Carolina, Tennessee is probably out of the SEC East race.
For the 5th time in 5 tries against a Will Muschamp-coached team (3 of which have come with Butch Jones at the helm), Tennessee’s offense could not sustain any success and the Vols fell to the Gamecocks, 24-21.
If you’re expecting the Vols to start fast at this point...I’ve got some beautiful ocean front property on Neyland Drive I’d like to sell you. The Vols’ first possession on defense and then offense included a penalty on a kickoff, a facemask, an offsides on a 3rd down stop, a declined pass interference, a holding, and a snap 10 yards behind Dobbs.
In addition to all that, we had a penalty that negated a Dobbs’ touchdown run, an accepted pass interference, and a bad interception that led to another Gamecocks’ touchdown. After that, there were several more horrifying throws by Dobbs, a South Carolina punt that the Vols kicked 20 yards backwards, a Tennessee punt that was kicked into the end zone (which the refs called a touch back), and a particularly inept 4th down sequence that went attempted FG-timeout-line up incorrectly-call another timeout-get sacked.
South Carolina was certainly willing to engage in a rock fight with some sloppy play of their own (had a guy ejected for throwing punches, took themselves out of range for scoring at the end of the half with an unsportsmanlike penalty), but they took a 14-7 lead into the half.
The second half magic we’ve grown accustomed to did not materialize immediately. The first drive after halftime included a drop of a bad pass and a punt. The second drive appeared to have promise after a long pass to Jennings, but it was overturned on review and Dobbs was almost sacked on the ensuing play. Between those two drives, the defense bent, but didn’t break to keep it at 14-7.
South Carolina would extend their lead the next time they touched the ball, however. Kirkland slipped and allowed Rico Dowdle to scoot for 40 yards into Tennessee territory. On a 3rd and long, Bentley ripped it to Deebo Samuel for a first down. On the next 3rd down, Bentley beat Jumper to the edge to set the Gamecocks up with 1st and goal. The Vols’ defense stood up (with the help of a holding penalty that negated a TD), but with a FG, the Vols found themselves down double digits for the 7th time in 8 games.
That double digit deficit was short lived as Evan Berry took the ball at the goal line, gathered a head of steam, and ran straight down the middle of the field untouched to draw the Vols within 3 at 17-14. After a defensive stop featuring a Barnett sack, it looked like momentum was shifting.
But a holding call on a punt the Vols did not return set them back. Dobbs, possibly dinged up, bounced another pass and the Vols had to punt it away. They stopped South Carolina on their next drive, but once again came up with a silly penalty on a punt return to put the offense in jail. A nice run from Kelly got the Vols out midfield, but when he came out, Carlin Fils-Amie, the 4th string RB, knocked the ball out of Dobbs’ hands on an attempted pass and South Carolina recovered.
If you expected the defense to get a stop after another injury...well, that didn’t happen. A blown coverage led to a wide-open receiver scooting into the end zone to put Carolina up 24-14.
A nice return of the ensuing kickoff by not Berry was set back by, you guessed it, a holding call (plus a player got injured!). But for the first time all night, the offense broke out. A nice pass down the seam to Jennings was extended by a questionable targeting call. After a pass to Croom and a run by Kelly to set up 1st and goal, the Vols got back on the scoreboard when Dobbs hit Jennings in the back of the end zone.
Needing a stop, the Vols got a sack on first down, but a 3rd down blitz was picked up and Carolina converted. On the next set of downs, the Vols got another sack and forced a stop.
So was it written in the stars? Another game-winning drive? Umm, no. Dobbs threw late over the middle of the field and the ball was picked. With only two timeouts, the defense needed a 3 and out, but couldn’t get it. That allowed South Carolina to bleed the clock to 45 seconds, punt, and pin the Vols at the 15 with 35 seconds left and no timeouts.
You could at least entertain the thought that there was more magic afoot when Jennings caught a batted ball and a pass to Malone on the sideline got the Vols in South Carolina territory with 19 seconds to go. Unfortunately, it was followed by an incomplete pass to Wolf and Dobbs taking a lot of time to scramble for only 5 yards, forcing Medley to attempt a 58-yard FG for the tie. It wasn’t close.
Dobbs was, simply, not good. At 12/26 for 161 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 crucial picks, he was outplayed by Bentley, who ended up 15/20 for 167 yards and 2 touchdowns. On the ground, Kelly led the way with 94 yards on 14 carries.
The culprits tonight were largely the same as we’ve seen all year: injuries (Hurd went out again), penalties (9 of them for 87 yards), and turnovers (3 of them to 0 for USCe). Where do the Vols go from here? Technically, they could still win the East if Florida drops games to Arkansas and LSU, but that chance is slim. Without that motivation, can the team hold it together? Will their penchant for playing sloppy cost them against Kentucky or Vanderbilt?
I don’t know, but tonight’s result undid a lot of the goodwill of the first half of the season. There are plenty of questions after another enigmatic performance.