The Big Orange managed a paltry 186 yards of total offense and converted just 2 of 14 third-down opportunities, leading head coach Derek Dooley to note: “We fought them hard but we're just a mess on offense right now. We can't run; we struggled to throw.”
The Gamecocks improve to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in SEC play. The Vols, losing for the fourth time in a row, slip to 3-5 and 0-5.
Tennessee paid dearly for failing to capitalize on three prime scoring opportunities following Carolina turnovers. The Vols recovered a muffed punt at Carolina's 18-yard line in the first quarter but settled for a 22-yard Michael Palardy field goal. Prentiss Waggner returned an interception 54 yards to the Gamecock 2-yard line in the third quarter but Tennessee gave the ball back on a pick two plays later. The Vols recovered a fumble at the Gamecock 28 in the fourth quarter but Justin Worley threw his second interception of the game on the very next play.
Immediately after the second squandered opportunity, a deflated Tennessee defense surrendered a 20-play, 98-yard drive that bumped South Carolina's lead to 14-3 with 47 seconds left in the third quarter. That 14-point swing essentially was the difference in the game.
Worley, a true freshman who had taken just five snaps and thrown zero passes in the Vols' first seven games, finished his first college start 10 of 26 for 105 yards with two interceptions. Senior Matt Simms, the guy Worley replaced, took the reins midway through the fourth quarter and finished 5 of 12 for 46 yards.
“Justin had a tough day out there – a couple of interceptions in the red area he's got to learn from,” Dooley conceded. “It's hard. He struggled a little bit administratively, had to call some timeouts.”
Tennessee struggled to protect Worley from a ferocious South Carolina pass rush, and the rookie's best throw of the night – a strike that should've produced a 44-yard touchdown – was dropped by Da' Rick Rogers. That's why Dooley left Worley in until midway through the fourth quarter.
“He's got to learn to keep playing,” the coach said. “He was making some nice throws. We were trying to get him in a rhythm but you know what? It would really help him if we were able to run the ball. I'm really disappointed in that.”
No wonder. Tailback Tauren Poole managed just 38 yards on 18 carries. As a team, Tennessee finished with 35 net yards on 21 official attempts.
The Vols got the game's first big break, John Propst recovering a muffed punt by South Carolina's Ace Sanders at the Gamecock 18-yard line just two minutes into the game. But Worley's passing struggles – no completions in his first four attempts – forced the Vols to settle for the Palardy field goal and a 3-0 lead with 11:03 left in the opening quarter.
Tennessee had a chance to extend the lead late in the quarter but Palardy's 47-yard attempt was partially blocked by Stephon Gilmore.
South Carolina struck midway through the second quarter – Connor Shaw hitting a wide-open Rory Anderson for a 23-yard touchdown to put the Gamecocks on top 7-3.
The Vols nearly reclaimed the lead moments later but Rogers dropped the bomb from Worley and the Vols wound up coming away with nothing.
“We had a lot of opportunities,” Dooley said. “We dropped that – that was a touchdown – and we give it back on the 3 (on Worley's first interception), and then we get another turnover (in the fourth quarter). We had three opportunities there and went 0 for 3 on 'em.”
South Carolina got the clinching touchdown when Shaw scored on a five-yard quarterback draw in the third period. The Gamecocks were driving for another score when the game ended.
Minus star tailback Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina was expected to try and exploit Tennessee's suspect secondary. Instead, the visitors fed the ball to freshman Brandon Wilds, who ran for 137 yards on 28 carries. Though sacked three times, Shaw added 64 net yards on 16 carries and also completed 10 of 18 passes for 87 yards.
Tennessee's offense bears little resemblance to the explosive attack it was in September. Of course, rocket-armed quarterback Tyler Bray and big-play receiver Justin Hunter were healthy back then. Their absence has stripped the Vols of their two chief weapons.
“With every good football team you need two or three dynamic playmakers on offense and defense,” Dooley said. “I mean, that's what you've got to have to have a good team. When you don't have 'em, and nobody's filling that void, it becomes tough.
“Right now there's not a lot of dynamic playmaking going on, so we've got to find 'em.”