Although Tennessee let South Carolina battle back into Saturday’s game after dominating early, the Volunteers still managed to hold off the Gamecocks, 27-24, moving within a win of bowl eligibility.
The Volunteers (5-4, 3-3 SEC) were 2-3 just a few weeks ago, but after winning for the third time in the past four games -- with the lone loss coming by five points at Alabama -- they now rank as perhaps the second-best team in the SEC East. Their fourth-quarter implosion in a 28-27 loss to division champ Florida looms large.
At any rate, Tennessee has a legitimate shot to close the regular season on a five-game winning streak and carry enormous momentum into the offseason. The same can’t be said for the Gamecocks (3-6, 1-6), who have lost four of their past five.
What the win means for Tennessee: This was not the Vols’ best effort by any means. The Jalen Hurd-Alvin Kamara tandem that generated numerous big plays early fell into a bit of a rut, and John Jancek’s defense had increasing difficulty slowing down Perry Orth, Brandon Wilds and the Gamecocks’ offense. It was another example of the consistency issues that have plagued the Vols for much of the season, but at least the night still ended with a win.
What the loss means for South Carolina: Give Shawn Elliott another round of applause for giving South Carolina a spark. The Gamecocks lost for the second time in the three games since Elliott became interim head coach, but they were within striking distance in those losses against Texas A&M and Tennessee. There was no reason to think they might rally to win after falling behind the Vols, 17-0, right out of the gate, but an impressive second half made victory possible.
Top play: South Carolina was in position to kick the game-tying field goal -- at minimum -- after Orth hit Jerell Adams with a 30-yard completion deep inside Tennessee territory. But Tennessee’s Malik Foreman crept behind Adams and knocked the ball loose, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin recovered the fumble at the Tennessee 18 with 32 seconds left to play.
The game turned when…: South Carolina’s offense couldn’t do anything right early, but the Gamecocks got it going after halftime, scoring touchdowns on three straight possessions in the third quarter. That included a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass from Orth to Adams to tie the score at 17-all and another game-tying scoring pass from Orth to Pharoh Cooper.
Unsung hero: The center of Tennessee’s defensive line hasn’t always been solid this season, but senior Owen Williams made sure that wasn’t the case on Saturday. Williams played a key role in Tennessee building a 17-3 halftime lead by notching three tackles for loss in the opening half alone (Derek Barnett added two more). Williams came in with just 2.5 TFLs all season. Williams finished the day with six tackles and three TFLs. He added a huge third-down stop in the fourth quarter to force a punt and help stop the bleeding on defense.