Well, we had to wait an extra month for SEC football to return to our lives, but I think it’s fair to say the wait was worthwhile.
No one really knew what to expect from this game. Especially Tennessee and South Carolina. Regardless, there were plenty of plays made between both teams and the game came down to the wire.
What else could you ask for in a season opener? Let’s recap Tennessee’s big win over South Carolina.
A 20-yard completion to Shi Smith got the Gamecocks moving on the first drive of the game and he showed up big with another 20-yard reception on 3rd and 4 just a few plays later. That reception took South Carolina down to the UT17 and Kevin Harris punched it in off left tackle from the UT3 and Parker White hit the PAT to give the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead with 9:59 to go in the first quarter.
Tennessee was able to move the ball on the next drive, but Jarrett Guarantano overthrew a wide open Romel Keyton on 2nd and 10, leaving the Vols with a 3rd and 10 on their own 49. Kingsley Enagbare took Guarantano down for the sack on the next play and ended the Vols’ drive.
But that wasn’t even the worst of it. There was a botched snap on the following punt attempt and the Gamecocks took over at the UT38.
You couldn’t have pictured a worse start for the Vols. Forutnately, the defense was able to hold South Carolina to a three-and-out and prevented things from getting even worse.
Tennessee’s next drive hit a 3rd and 2, but senior receiver Brandon Johnson made arguably the best catch of the 2020 college football season as he hauled in an over-the-shoulder grab with one hand for 30 yards to take the Vols down to the SC42.
Two plays later, Guarantano smartly checked down to running back Eric Gray for a 31-yard gain down to the SC1, and on the next play, the Vols quickly hurried to the line, and Guarantano punched it in for the Vols’ first touchdown of the 2020 season. Brent Cimaglia hit the PAT and the game was tied, 7-7, with 3:07 to go in the first quarter.
Both teams traded a few possessions and the game remained tied until Deandre Johnson came tearing around the left side of the offense and forced Colin Hill to dump the ball off. The intended receiver couldn’t hold on to the pass and it bounced off his hands and into the hands of Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o, who somehow managed to race 32 yards down the field and into the end zone. Cimaglia nailed the PAT and the Vols led, 14-7, with 13:22 left in the first half.
HENRY T PICK 6!!— Decade Of The Vols (@OSaile_) September 27, 2020
TOUCHDOWN TENNESSEE pic.twitter.com/b2v7sJaAxu
The Tennessee defense was starting to settle down and the offense was moving the ball. South Carolina, on the other hand, began to look overmatched. How would the Gamecocks respond to the To’o To’o pick-six?
Hill found Smith over the middle on a slant again for a 19-yard gain, but good coverage on the back end of the defense let Johnson and Kevon Bennett get home for the sack on 3rd and 2, which immediately killed South Carolina’s drive.
Tennessee’s drive ended after Guarnatano missed a throw to Jalin Hyatt on 3rd and 2, but a personal foul on Enagbare kept the drive alive. The Vols couldn’t take advantage of the penalty, however, and had to punt the ball away. A well-executed punt from Paxton Brooks pinned the Gamecocks at their own four-yard line.
South Carolina was able to work itself out of the terrible field position, but another Tennessee sack —this time it was true freshman Denico Slaughter— ended the Gamecocks’ drive and the Vols took over at the SC46.
This time South Carolina came through with a sack to end Tennessee’s drive. Guarantano was lucky he didn’t fumble the ball away. The Gamecocks would receive the ball with under 2:00 left in the half, looking to put some points on the board.
Hill caught an extremely lucky break as Johnson was able to knock the ball out of his hands for his second sack of the half, but the Gamecocks fell on the ball and denied the Vols an opportunity to have a crack at some points, themselves.
Tennessee’s defense dominated the first half, allowing just 125 total yards and limiting the Gamecock offense to just 3.29 yards per play. South Carolina was also 3-of-8 on 3rd down and 0-for-1 on 4th down.
But the Vols weren’t so hot on offense, themselves. They had just 10 rushing yards on 11 attempts and went 1-for-5 on 3rd down in the first half. The lack of a ground game and Guarantano’s inaccuracy were holding the team back and would need to improve if the Vols wanted to put the game away.
It only took Tennessee a few plays to get into scoring position. Once the Vols were inside the SC 31, Guarantano found some running room on a 19-yard scramble and Eric Gray finished off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown run to put the Vols up 20-7. The PAT was good and Tennessee led, 21-7, with 12:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Xavier Legette gave the Gamecocks one of their biggest plays of the night as he hauled in a 42-yard completion to move South Carolina inside UT territory. Hill then found Smith over the middle again, but this time it was for a 29-yard touchdown reception that helped cut Tennessee’s lead to 21-14.
Velus Jones Jr. returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards to the UT43, giving the Vols good field position to start their next drive. He subsequently caught two passes for 19 yards to move Tennessee into SC territory, but the drive stalled soon after and Cimaglia wasn’t even close on his 46-yard field goal attempt, so South Carolina would receive the ball at its own 29 and down one score.
Hill and the Gamecock offense made it look easy on the next drive. Tight end Nick Muse got things started off with a couple of big receptions and SC continued to kill the Vols over the middle as running back Deshaun Fenwick caught a 20-yard pass on 3rd and 10 to take the ball down to the UT7. Hill capped off the 10-play, 71-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run of his own to tie the game at 21 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
All of a sudden, it was a game. How would Tennessee respond?
The response was good, but not great. The Vols were able to drive down inside the SC15, but came up just short on third down after Guarantano missed Palmer over the middle. Cimaglia hit his 27-yard field goal attempt and put the Vols back up, 24-21.
The Gamecocks tried a jet sweep with Smith on 3rd and 1, but Tennessee forced him out of bounds in order to come up with the stop. South Carolina was moving the ball, so it was a huge play on Tennessee’s end.
But Tennessee couldn’t capitalize on the offensive side of the ball. Two bad throws from Guarantano left the Vols in a punting situation. The Gamecocks didn’t get off easy, however, as Brooks came through with a 52-yard punt to pin them at their own 14.
It didn’t matter though, because South Carolina was able to move the ball rather easily. Jeremy Banks made matters worse when he drew a personal foul for a late hit on Fenwick as he was going out of bounds. The Gamecocks were already at midfield thanks to the run, but Banks’ penalty took them to the UT35. The situation became even more dire when Hill moved his offense into the red zone, but Johnson came up with yet another sack to force the field goal.
White drilled the 35-yard attempt to tie the game at 24 with 10:48 left in the game.
Guarantano came through with two huge throws on the next drive that led to the Vols’ next touchdown. He stood tall in the pocket and took a hit while delivering a perfect pass to Johnson for 33 yards and then unloaded a deep bomb to palmer down the right sideline for the 32-yard touchdown. Both throws were on the money and the extra point put the Vols up, 31-24, with 9:45 to go.
Tennessee’s corners were responsible for shutting down South Carolina’s next drive. Bryce Thompson took down ZaQuandre White in the backfield for a loss and then Alontae Taylor prevented Hill from completing a pass to Legette on third down.
This was the perfect chance for the Vols to put the game away, especially considering the fact that they were starting at midefield. Tennessee couldn’t get it done, though, and had to punt the ball back to South Carolina with 7:11 remaining.
A big break came through for the Gamecocks after Banks drew a personal foul for ripping the helmet off of one of the offensive linemen. The Gamecocks had a 2nd and 4 before the penalty, but the mistake gave them a first down and 15 extra yards, which placed them in Tennessee territory. The defense managed to buckle down and force a field goal attempt, which White nailed from 45 yards out to cut Tennessee’s lead to 31-27 with 3:16 to go.
It looked like Tennessee was about to close the game out. Gray went for eight yards on the first play of the drive, then Chandler broke one off for 20 yards right after. A false start on the following 1st and 10 nuked any chance of Tennessee sealing the deal, though.
What made things even hairier was the fact Tennessee lost 12 more yards afterward and had to punt the ball away on a 4th and 24 from their own 39. South Carolina was going to receive the ball down four points with about 1:20 left and no timeouts.
There would be no shot at a comeback, however as Brooks’ punt bounced off Cam Smith’s leg and into the arms of Jimmy Holiday.
The Vols would go on to win, 31-27, and move to 1-0 on the season. They will host the Missouri Tigers on October 3 in Neyland Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 12PM EST.