This one is going to hurt.
After getting out to a wonderful start, the Vols just didn’t have enough in the tank to outlast the South Carolina Gamecocks. Tennessee has now lost three in a row and is 0-7 when facing off against Will Muschamp.
The offense came to play, but the defense did not. In all, it was a pretty disappointing night for the Big Orange as they blew an 11-point lead en route to their fifth loss of the season.
Tennessee’s defense came out and did their job against the Gamecocks on the opening drive of the game, forcing a three-and-out. Unfortunately, an illegal substitution call on a 3rd-and-3 helped South Carolina return the favor during the Vols’ first offensive possession.
Jake Bentley and the offense began to move the ball downfield on the next drive, but Vols’ linebacker Daniel Bituli tipped a pass in the air, resulting in a Shy Tuttle interception. It was a thing of beauty, watching the big man tussle with ball while falling to the ground.
The Vols took over at the Gamecocks’ 39-yard line. A false start on 3rd-and-5 was quickly negated by an offside penalty on Bryson Allen-Williams and Jarrett Guarantano took advantage of the call, finding Marquez Callaway over the middle for the first down.
A tough, physical run by Tim Jordan brought the Vols down to the 18. Another offside call on Allen-Williams gave Tennessee a free first down inside the 10. Guarantano then found tight end Eli Wolf wide open in the end zone on 1st-and-goal for the game’s first touchdown, 7-0.
It was the Rico Dowdle show on the next drive for the Gamecocks. He carried the ball six times for 62 yards and helped drive the offense all the way down to the UT 2. Dowdle and the rest of the offense had to settle for a field goal as they watched a Bentley pass sail out of the back corner of the end zone. The Vols lead was cut to four, 7-3.
South Carolina forced another three-and-out and got the ball back with 13:37 in the second quarter. A well-executed blitz left Bentley eating turf after defensive linemen Kyle Phillips and Alexis Johnson Jr both took him down for the sack. The end result was another punt and the Vols now had the ball at the South Carolina 29.
The result was a 15-play, 71-yard drive that took 7:53 off the clock and ended in a five-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings to push the Vols’ lead to 14-3. Tennessee converted four third downs on the drive, with two of those being 3rd-and-10 or longer.
But Jennings was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the touchdown and it hurt the Vols. South Carolina received the ball with great field position at their own 40 and they were in UT territory within two plays.
A 16-yard catch by Bryan Edwards on 3rd-and-5 enabled the Gamecocks to finally get some momentum going on offense. Using quick-tempo, Bentley found Samuel in the back of the end zone off a scramble and he made a spectacular, one-handed grab.
It wasn’t an automatic seven, however, as Tuttle made another huge play by blocking the extra point attempt to keep the lead at five, 14-9.
Outside of penalties and some protection issues, the offense played well in the first half. The defense made some impactful plays, but still had a lot to clean up on that side of the ball.
The Vols’ offense picked up right where it left off in the third quarter. A good mix of run and pass helped drive them right down the field. Carlin Fils-Aime scored the third touchdown of the game off a reverse sweep and the Vols now led 21-9.
But the Gamecocks answered right back with a quick scoring drive of their own. They drove 66 yards in just 1:40 off the legs of Tyson Williams. It initially appeared as if he punched it in from the one-yard line, but an overturned call gave the opportunity to Dowdle instead.
Dowdle took full advantage, launching himself over the pile of defenders to bring the game back within a score. This time, Parker White hit the extra point attempt and the Gamecocks trailed, 21-16.
Guarantano found Jennings over the middle for a 16-yard gain to move the Vols into USC territory on the next drive. A couple of nice runs followed by a 15-yard gain off a quick screen to Callaway brought the Vols all the way down to the Gamecocks’ 15.
A big sack by D.J. Wonnum on Guarantano and then a subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play on Callaway forced the Vols into a 3rd-and-27. The series of events nearly pushed them out of field goal range, but Brent Cimaglia nailed the 45-yard attempt to increase the lead to 24-16.
It was time for the defense to get a stop and give the Vols some momentum.
Well, that didn’t happen. A complete lack of pressure on Bentley allowed him to make a beautiful throw to Bryan Edwards on a deep post. Edwards made the catch and raced 73 yards down to the Vols’ 2.
A somewhat-botched snap between Dowdle and Bentley left South Carolina stranded with 3rd-and-goal at the Vols’ one-yard line. Williams was able to break through and Bentley ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game, 24-24.
Bentley appeared to be shaken up on the play, but was able to run off the field under his own power soon afterward.
Both teams entered the fourth quarter with another exciting finish brewing. Tennessee’s offense was carrying the team. If they expected to win, then the defense would have to do something.
Fortunately, the defense didn’t have to hit the field yet. The drive was kickstarted when Guarantano eluded a collapsing pocket and flipped a quick pass to Jordan. Jordan was able to make a couple of defenders miss and get the first down.
Guarantano missed another deep shot to Josh Palmer, however, on an underthrown ball. Both players just weren’t in synch on the night, which was a surprise considering their season-long connection thus far.
Jordan broke a couple of tackles to put the Vols in a 3rd-and-2, but their fourth false start of the night left them in a 3rd-and-7. They were able to overcome the penalty, however, as Guarantano found Callaway on the left sideline for the first down.
The Vols faced another third down just a couple of plays later. South Carolina brought a free blitzer up the middle, but Guarantano somehow found Callaway over the middle for another conversion. It was an incredible play on Guarantano’s end that demonstrated the toughness he’s shown all season long.
Tennessee couldn’t convert their next third down and were left with a big choice. It was 4th-and-7 at the South Carolina 35. Would Jeremy Pruitt decide to go for it?
He most certainly did and unfortunately, the Vols couldn’t pull through. Great protection setup a clean pocket, but Guarantano’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and fell incomplete.
Bentley came out and fired a deep shot on first down from midfield to Shi Smith. While it was originally ruled a touchdown, it was challenged and reversed. A defensive pass interference call on Baylen Buchanan gave the Gamecocks the ball at the UT 36.
Things weren’t looking good for the Vols. Little-used Mon Denson took South Carolina into the red zone in a few runs and all of a sudden, Tennessee was in deep trouble.
But things changed quickly. Great defense at the point of attack and a great open-field tackle by Buchanan on receiver Josh Vann held South Carolina to a 26-yard field goal attempt. White made the attempt and they now led 27-24, but it was a much better alternative than a touchdown.
So now the Vols took over at their own 25 with 5:52 left on the clock. How would they fare after giving up an 11-point lead?
Adversity came early. Tennessee had to convert a 3rd-and-short right off the bat and were able to do so en route to their 10th conversion of the game at that point.
It didn’t take long for the next third down to pop up. Just two plays later, Guarantano found Callaway again on a short crosser over the middle. He was able to take the ball 13 yards into South Carolina territory before the Vols were faced with yet another third down.
This time, Tennessee couldn’t convert as Guarantano was sacked again.
A manageable - and necessary - 4th-and-5 was soon turned into 4th-and-10 after the Vols’ committed their fifth false start of the game. Regardless of the penalty, it was still an interesting decision considering the Vols still had all three timeouts.
A waiting Guarantano was sacked from behind as he failed to feel the pressure off a three-man rush.
South Carolina took over on downs and a big run by Dowdle sealed the victory.
Tennessee is now 3-5 on the season and hosts Charlotte next weekend.