Well that one went just like we thought it would, right? What an unbelievable performance by this young Tennessee team last night to go into Columbia and come home with a win. Overcoming a late deficit on the road will go a long way towards helping this team build some confidence and momentum as they head into the bye week before the three-game stretch of Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season.
Here are some key takeaways from Tennessee’s 45-42 overtime win over South Carolina:
Winning mentality: Butch Jones has talked about it since the day he was hired, but you finally saw this team take a tangible step towards developing a winning mentality Saturday night in Columbia. Trailing by 14 points (twice) in the 4th quarter the Vols looked like they were destined to run out of time, but nobody panicked, nobody hung their heads and nobody quit. The defense got the stops that had eluded them all game and the offense got big plays from Josh Dobbs, Pig Howard and Jalen Hurd to keep the game within reach – the final touchdown coming on a Josh Dobbs pass to Jason Croom with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter. In overtime, it was all Tennessee on Saturday night. The offense set up Aaron Medley for a 32- yard kick to give Tennessee a 45-42 lead, and the defense would use sacks from Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett on Carolina’s overtime drive to force a 58-yard field goal attempt by Elliott Fry. Fry’s kick wasn’t close and Tennessee’s comeback was complete. Mental toughness was on full display.
Pig Howard: On a night when Josh Malone and Marquez North were held without a catch, the Vols and Josh Dobbs leaned on the veteran member of the receiving corps to move the ball in crunch time. Pig Howard scored Tennessee’s first touchdown of the night on a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter that saw him retreat all the way back to the 11 before gaining the edge against Carolina’s defense and reaching the pylon for the score. But where Howard really shined was during Tennessee’s final two drives of regulation when his team needed him most. On those final two drives, Howard hauled in four catches for 87 yards – the chunk plays that Tennessee had to have if they were going to win. On the night, Howard finished with four rushes for 29 yards and a touchdown to go along with his five catches for 109 yards.
Jalen Hurd: Whatever pre-game routine Jalen Hurd has gone through over the last two weeks seems to be working. The addition of Josh Dobbs in Tennessee’s backfield has obviously helped give Hurd a little more room to work with, but he seems to running harder, smarter and much more violent than he did earlier in the year. Against South Carolina the true freshman finished with 24 rushes for 125 yards and 7 catches for an additional 58 yards and a touchdown. I know South Carolina’s defense isn’t some juggernaut, but it is clear that Hurd is getting better each week and is growing into an All-American caliber running back before our very eyes. At this pace, Hurd should eclipse 1,000 all-purpose yards this season with relative ease and has an outside shot at 1,000 on the ground if he can turn in another big performance or two. As it stands, Hurd needs 402 rushing yards over the final three games to reach 1,000 for the season.
O-Line Pride: 344. 301. Zero. That’s 344 rushing yards for Tennessee, 301 passing yards for Josh Dobbs and ZERO sacks allowed in a game for the first time this season. The offensive line had their best performance of the year in a game where Tennessee needed it most. The Vols’ lineup from left to right was Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Roberston and Jacob Gilliam, and I thought they had an outstanding night. South Carolina’s defensive line was held in check for most of the game on pass-rush situations and routinely had to blitz in an attempt to pressure Dobbs. Dobbs was able to avoid what little pressure they sent his way and find open receivers down the field or tuck it and run. Jalen Hurd and Josh Dobbs found running room to the left, right and up the middle at various times all night and there didn’t appear to be any weaknesses up front for Tennessee against the Gamecocks. This is a group that has taken huge steps over the last two games, and one that looks poised for a strong finish to the season after a terrible start.
Rocket Dobbs: What all can you say about Josh Dobbs that hasn’t already been said? What Josh Dobbs was able to accomplish in this game will go down as one of the single-greatest performances by a quarterback in the history of Tennessee Football. He was calm under pressure, he was accurate with the football and he was able to consistently break South Carolina’s will by making huge plays with his feet. Dobbs finished the night with 467 total yards (301 passing/166 rushing) and five total touchdowns (3 rushing/2 passing), but it wasn’t just his numbers that were impressive about this performance; it was his demeanor. Dobbs never flinched in this game. He started strong and actually appeared to get better when his team needed him the most. His 36-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds to go before the half gave Tennessee some momentum heading into halftime and his final two drives of the fourth quarter – 75 and 85 yards, respectively – were near-legend status. In those final two drives, dobbs went 10-of-15 passing for 130 yards and a touchdown and added another score on the ground. Bottom line: he was sensational; and Tennessee players, coaches and fans should be very excited with what they have with Josh Dobbs under center.
*Overtime: I know it’s “5 Observations” but since the game went into extra time I figured I’d do the same. What an outstanding performance in overtime by Tennessee. South Carolina appeared dejected and gassed, while Tennessee’s sideline looked completely rejuvenated and ready to play. Obviously, Aaron Medley’s field goal would prove the difference in the ball game, but Tennessee’s defense won them this game during the extra period. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett looked like men possessed, sacking Dylan Thompson on first and third down, respectively, and helping to force an incompletion on second down. A lot of credit has to go to John Jancek for keeping his guys mentally focused on their job, but also to strength coach Dave Lawson for having this team prepared for 4+ quarters of football. Tennessee looked like the better-conditioned team all night, but it really showed in overtime.