KNOXVILLE – Last time Tennessee played a game in Neyland Stadium, the Vols left the field dejected after Georgia nailed a game-winning field goal to knock off the Vols 34-31 in overtime.
There was a much different scene on Saturday against No. 9 South Carolina.
Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC) kicker Michael Palardy drilled a 20-yard field goal as time expired to give UT a 23-21 win. It’s the first victory over a ranked team for UT since the Vols knocked off South Carolina in 2009 – ending a 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents.
“Great day to be a Vol,” said Jones, who appeared at his postgame press conference with grass stains on his shirt after a celebration that included him leading the Tennessee band.
“I thought out team showed some resiliency. We found a way to win and we talk about play winning football. All the things that happened throughout the course of the game and a game can be decided by two or three plays but you never know which two or three plays they’re going to be.”
It was a back-and-forth game that led to a dramatic ending. It was also the type of contest the Vols have made a habit of losing over the past few seasons.
A 17-7 halftime lead for Tennessee was erased after a strong third quarter from South Carolina. The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) scored twice – a 21-yard touchdown run by running back Mike Davis and a 1-yard sneak by quarterback Connor Shaw – to take a 21-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter would be owned by UT punter/kicker Michael Palardy, with some help from Tennessee’s D and true freshman Marquez North.
Set up by a 48-yard reception by North, Palardy chipped in a 33-yard field goal to pull Tennessee within one point at 21-20 with just over 10 minutes left in the fourth.
South Carolina’s offense wouldn’t cross midfield again after that point. Tennessee kept the Gamecocks pinned deep thanks to some skilled punting by Palardy. With 3:16 left, Tennessee’s drive stalled at the 50. Instead of a desperation fourth-down attempt, Jones opted to punt.
“Well, we had all three timeouts and, just like the first half, we played the field position game,” said Jones. “[Palardy] had been doing such a great job of pooch kicking that I figured we’ve got all three timeouts, let’s try to pin them down there.
“We have unbelievable faith and trust in our defense.”
It paid off. South Carolina, playing with backup quarterback Dylan Thompson after losing Shaw on the previous drive to a knee injury, couldn’t get a first down. Coach Steve Spurrier contemplated a gutsy 4th-and-2 conversion attempt, but after a pair of timeouts, ultimately decided to punt.
UT took over on its own 35 and that’s when North, a true freshman, struck again. On 3rd-and-10, quarterback Justin Worley heaved one up to the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, who was single covered. With the defender draped on one arm, North used his free arm to make a spectacular one-handed catch that set UT up at the South Carolina 26.
“He’s got a big body and can jump so you have to like your chances,” Worley said.
After four rushes from Marlin Lane, UT made its way to the 2. Worley spiked the ball with three seconds remaining. Palardy took it from there.
“It meant everything to me,” said Palardy, who attempted and made the first game-winning field goal of his career. “It’s been a long time coming. I want to give it up to the offense and defense for putting me in that position. I couldn’t have done it without the plays that they made.”
Palardy finished the game 3-of-4 on field goals, averaged 40.4 yards per punt with six downed inside the 20 and had two touchbacks on five kickoffs.
Jones had a prophetic moment on Friday night during a conversation with his senior kicker.
“Mike and I were in line at dinner last night and I looked at him because he told me he was going to have the game winner at Georgia,” Jones said. “I looked at him this time and said, ‘You’ve got the game winner tomorrow, right?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I got you, Coach.’ He’s performing exceptionally well for us.”
The theme of practice this week for UT revolved around earning the extra inches in the game. There were plenty examples of Tennessee doing just that on Saturday. Perhaps the most noticeable came from North, who went up and made the key receptions at the highest point possible.
Those were the types of plays that UT hasn’t made enough of recently. The Vols finally had enough on Saturday.
“We call it back footing it and going out and catching the ball at it’s highest point,” Jones said of North’s catches. “It is like of going up and getting a rebound. He came down with the ball. Players make plays to win games and we found some ways to make some plays to win the football game.”
“We were fighting for that inch today, and we found that inch.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga