Quick Summary: Saturday’s 38-35 loss at South Carolina was representative of much of the last three years for Tennessee. It looked like the Vols had a chance to do something special, but in the end, it was a failure.
The Vols (3-5, 0-5 SEC) had the ball at South Carolina’s 19, down three with just more than a minute to go. After successfully blocking South Carolina’s star defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, all day, left tackle Tiny Richardson let him by and Clowney sacked and stripped Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray. The Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2 SEC) recovered the ball and held on for the win.
South Carolina took a 28-14 lead into halftime, powered by a strong early performance by running back Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore had 11 carries for 70 yards and a touchdown, but he was carted off in the second quarter after what appeared to be a gruesome right knee injury. After the game, coach Steve Spurrier said the injury was serious, but they won’t know details until further tests are run.
Even without the star junior running back, South Carolina moved the ball with ease on the Vols’ much-maligned defense. Bray and the passing game kept Tennessee in the game, but it was unable to score in the final minute.
Big plays in the Vols’ passing game were turned in by receiver Vincent Dallas (61-yard touchdown catch), receiver Zach Rogers (three touchdown receptions) and wide receiver Pig Howard, who lined up in the Wildcat and threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mychal Rivera.
It was over when: The Vols were able to use their three timeouts to get the ball back after Bray’s fumble, but they did not have enough time to get back into scoring range. A desperation heave from Bray, intended for wide receiver Justin Hunter, was intercepted by South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton to officially seal the win.
Tennessee player of the game: Coach Derek Dooley called out Bray this week, and the junior quarterback responded with his best SEC game of the season. He completed 27-of-43 attempts for 368 yards, four touchdowns and just one interception (a desperation heave on the last drive). His fumble was costly on the second-to-last drive, but he never saw Clowney coming, and he was a big part of the reason the Vols were even still in the game.
South Carolina player of the game: Quarterback Connor Shaw had a career day, completing 22-of-32 attempts for 356 yards, three touchdowns and one interception despite playing with a sore shoulder. With Lattimore out, he also picked up some of the slack in the run game with 18 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Shaw missed one play after taking a hard hit on his shoulder, but appeared to be fine after his brief rest.
Unsung hero: Tennessee wide receiver Zach Rogers had the best day of his career with six receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns. Bray looked his way in several key situations, including a fourth-down conversion in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Herman Lathers deserves some credit as well for being all over the field with 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
Three stats of note:
1. South Carolina quarterbacks completed 69.7 percent of its passes: The Vols had no answers in the secondary. Their only interception came on a desperation fourth-down throw by Shaw, and Shaw picked the Tennessee passing defense apart all day. The Vols tried some new faces such as freshman cornerback Daniel Gray and senior safety Rod Wilks, but nothing worked.
2. Tennessee had 472 yards of total offense: This loss was on the defense. The offense, particularly the passing game, was clicking against one of the best defenses in the SEC. Big plays were a key component of the Vols’ attack. Tennessee had long passing touchdowns of 22, 37 and 61 yards
3. Tennessee started SEC play 0-5 for the third straight year: Vanderbilt is the only other program in SEC history to do that. It’s partially a reflection on the Vols’ normally front-loaded SEC slate, but it’s also a scary stat for Dooley, who will be lobbying to keep his job in the next few weeks.
Where does Tennessee go from here?: The Vols didn’t quit or let down against South Carolina, but for the fourth time in five SEC games, they were in the game late but couldn’t make that one final play to finish off a victory. Again, the story was an impressive offensive performance that was spoiled by another disastrous defensive day. Did Dooley buy a little bit of time with a decent performance? Perhaps. But that was the Vols’ last opportunity to get an impressive win this season with only Troy, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt left on the schedule. Even if the Vols can win all of those, a 7-5 campaign with no wins over a ranked team will fall short of expectations. If they suffer any more setbacks, Dooley’s fate would be almost certainly be sealed.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.