Following four tough games and a bye week, Tennessee was supposed to cruise through the final portion of its schedule, starting with a trip to South Carolina. But that script abruptly ended with a 24-21 loss to the Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4 SEC) on Saturday night.
Butch Jones called it “unacceptable.”
“Too sloppy and very disappointed with the way we played…that was unacceptable,” Jones told reporters after the game. “It starts with myself, with the coaching staff.”
For the second straight game, Tennessee looked flat, lacking rhythm on offense. Joshua Dobbs finished the game 12-of-26 with 161 yards, a touchdown, a fumble and two interceptions.
South Carolina started the game with an authoritative touchdown drive.
The Gamecocks drove 73 yards on nine plays, capped off by a Rico Dowdle touchdown run from the 1-yard line. Tennessee answered a few minutes later with a nine play, 53-yard drive ending with a Jalen Hurd touchdown run.
That was the biggest impact Hurd would have. Hurd finished with eight carries for 16 yards and one score.
South Carolina’s freshman quarterback Jake Bentley would consistently make plays against the Tennessee defense. His 17-yard throw to Bryan Edwards in the second quarter would break the early tie, giving the Gamecocks a 14-7 advantage.
Tennessee’s answer was underwhelming. The Vols would run right, run left, and throw an incomplete pass on 3rd-and-9. That would be a major theme of the night. Joshua Dobbs would finish the game 0-for-6 with one interception on third downs.
Derek Barnett did his part to will the Vols to victory. Barnett made his first sack of the game late in the second quarter, and added two more in the second half to place himself second on UT’s all time sack list (29).
After South Carolina added a field goal in the third quarter, Tennessee found life through special teams. Evan Berry’s 100-yard kickoff return made it a three-point game with 1:35 to play in the third quarter. Berry’s return was his fourth career touchdown, placing him in a tie for first with Willie Gault in the UT record books.
But midway through the 4th quarter, South Carolina came back with another big play. Jake Bentley capitalized on a busted coverage to connect with KC Crosby for a 35-yard touchdown.
This time, Dobbs and Tennessee had an answer. The Vols drove 77 yards in six plays, culminating in a Jauan Jennings touchdown catch that gave Tennessee some life. The Vols would get the ball back again with 3:50 to play on its own 20. But Dobbs threw a pick on the first play of the drive to give the ball right back to South Carolina.
Tennessee’s last drive started on its own 15 with 35 seconds to play. A couple long passes gave Tennessee a glimmer of hope, but Aaron Medley would miss a 58- yard field goal as time expired to seal a loss for UT on the road.
Butch Jones says there’s still time for this team to turn things around.
“Mark my words as I sit here in South Carolina, there’s a lot of football left to be played,” he said.
Tennessee was penalized nine times for 87 yards. Jones added that his team’s preparation, with an extra week, was a point of concern.
“It’s the overall focus and discipline that I’m worried about,” Jones said. “I thought we had a good week of preparation…. But you have to apply it to the game field.”
Tennessee (5-3, 2-3 SEC) sits in third place in the SEC East. The Vols will need a lot of help in order to get to Atlanta.