KNOXVILLE – The Vols’ offense exploded for 35 points and 472 yards of total offense at South Carolina on Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t enough.
The defense had few answers for South Carolina, allowing the Gamecocks to tally 38 points and 510 total yards in a 38-35 win. Not surprisingly, the grades reflect the difference in the two sides of the ball.
Here’s a full report card from the Vols’ performance Saturday:
Quarterback Tyler Bray finally looked like the quarterback many expected him to be this season. He wasn’t perfect, but he completed 27-of-43 passes for 368 yards and four touchdowns. His one interception was on a desperation throw on the final drive. His fumble with one minute remaining was costly, but it’s hard to blame a quarterback for losing the ball when he’s hit from behind.
Running backs: C+
They weren’t a huge part of the plan against South Carolina. Part of that was because the Vols were playing from behind most of the game, and part can be attributed to starting running back Rajion Neal being held out (ankle). Marlin Lane had 56 yards on 15 carries, and as a team the Vols ran for just 91 yards on 27 attempts.
Wide receivers/tight ends: A
It wasn’t the usual suspects, but these units still got it done. It started with senior wide receiver Zach Rogers, who had six receptions for 107 yards and three touchdowns. Justin Hunter added eight grabs for 90 yards and Vincent Dallas had three catches for 78 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown reception. Credit them for being versatile, too. Pig Howard lined up as the Wildcat quarterback and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Mychal Rivera, while Cordarrelle Patterson also had three carries.
Offensive line: B+
Its going to take some heat for letting South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney sack and strip Tyler Bray on the second-to-last drive, but that doesn’t negate an overall great afternoon. Bray was sacked only once, and generally had time to throw all game. That’s an impressive accomplishment against one of the best defensive fronts in the SEC.
Defensive line: C
The Gamecocks ran for 180 yards, but they didn’t consistently find gaping holes in the Tennessee defensive line. Losing starting running back Marcus Lattimore (knee) in the second quarter played a role in that. Nose tackle Daniel McCullers had a good outing with eight stops. The Vols rotated a lot of players in here, but none had a huge impact on the game.
This unit had a pretty good night. Senior Herman Lathers played one of the best games of his career, totaling 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, an interception and a sack. A.J. Johnson was active as usual, totaling 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Curt Maggitt got a sack and Jordan Williams is making progress as well.
There’s not much positive to say about this group. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw, normally not known as a great pure passer, had a season-high 356 yards to go along with three touchdowns. Missed tackles, bad angles and blown assignments have become the norm for this group. The coaching staff tried some new faces such as freshman cornerback Daniel Gray and senior safety Rod Wilks, but the results didn’t change.
Special teams: C
There weren’t any game-changing meltdowns, but they could’ve been better. Punter Michael Palardy had been solid in his last two games, but he shanked a couple of punts, including an 11-yarder in the first half. A 66-yard punt helped bump his average to 40 yards per punt on five attempts. The Gamecocks wisely kicked away from Patterson on kickoffs. Patterson did go the wrong way on the final punt return of the game, costing the Vols eight yards of important field position. Palardy hit all five extra points and three of his six kickoffs were touchbacks.
Credit the coaching staff for not letting a frustrated team collapse against a talented opponent on the road. The Vols were in it until the final minute despite many predicting an implosion. Still, it’s a results-driven business, and the coaches didn’t get it done where it matters the most – the scoreboard. The defensive transition to the 3-4 has been a disaster, and the coaches seem to have no answer of how to fix it. Those struggles on Saturday covered up what was a very impressive offensive effort overall.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.