Tennessee led South Carolina for the majority of Saturday’s contest, and they held a 12-point lead in the third quarter after opening the second half of play with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.
But the Vols didn’t lead when it mattered most: When the clock hit zero.
The Gamecocks erased that two-score lead and out-scored the Vols 18-10 in the second half to pull out a 27-24 victory over Tennessee in Columbia. The Vols’ defense repeatedly got gashed in the second half, and South Carolina scored on all their drives in the second half aside from the last drive where they were just trying to run out the clock.
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Tennessee committed nine penalties, and six of them were pre-snap penalties on offense. The Vols also had two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, and they were flagged for pass interference.
The Vols did force one turnover, but that was all they could manage against a team that had turned the ball over 12 times in their first six games of the season.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt didn’t mince his words after the loss. He gave credit to South Carolina, but he made it clear that the loss was acceptable.
“The team that really made the fewest mistakes won,” Pruitt said to reporters after the game. “Those guys done a good job being resilient, finding a way. And we didn’t. So you have to give those guys credit.
“I think for our football team, there are a lot of good lessons to be learned here. I think our guys are getting vested in trying to do things the right way. But when you have nine penalties, and the other team has two, we’re not good enough to overcome that. Especially when they’re undisciplined penalties, and we had plenty of those today.”
Tennessee found a way to go on the road and get a victory against an SEC opponent two weeks ago when they upset No. 21 Auburn 30-24. And for a while on Saturday, the Vols looked like they were going to be able to pull off another upset on the road against a conference foe. The Vols jumped ahead 7-0 in the first quarter, getting their first lead on a Power Five opponent in the first quarter of play all season.
The Vols would hold on to that lead until the Gamecocks tied the game at 24-all with five seconds left in the third quarter. Then, South Carolina completed the comeback on a 25-yard field goal with 5:52 left in the game.
For Pruitt, the loss isn’t an easy one to swallow.
“I think for us as a program, this one stung,” Pruitt stated. “And it should have. We have to fix what we messed up and get back to work. It’s over with. Ain’t nothing else we can do about it now but learn from our mistakes.”
One of the biggest reasons the Vols couldn’t hold on for the victory was because of the defense’s collapse late in the second quarter and in the second half. South Carolina managed just 112 yards of offense, three points, and a turnover on 25 plays on their first four possessions of the game.
But then the wheels fell off Tennessee’s defense.
South Carolina would score on all four of their next possessions, starting with their final possession of the first half. And only one of those possessions, the one that ended in the go-ahead field goal, lasted longer than two minutes of game time.
The Vols gave up 279 yards of offense on South Carolina’s final five drives of the game, and the Gamecocks did all that damage on just 33 plays. The Gamecocks had five plays of 15 or more yards in the second half, including a 73-yard pass play and a 30-yard run.
Pruitt wasn’t pleased by what he saw from his defense. At all.
“Defensively, we got one turnover, gave up explosive plays. You can’t do that,” Pruitt said. “You have to make the other team earn it. It’s a shame that we continue to have some guys play well up front (offensively) and we have guys that just literally turn people loose. So it baffles me.
“I got to do a better job coaching them up. Keep working hard to do that.”
But the loss didn’t completely discourage Tennessee’s head man. Despite the loss, Pruitt said he still sees his team giving effort. But it’s clear that effort isn’t always enough, and his team needs to learn how to finish.
“Guys, let me tell you, the men in that locker room are busting their tail, trying to do it the right way,” Pruitt told the media. “They practice hard because we won’t let them do it any other way, to create really good habits. At the end of the day, you get measured by how you play on Saturdays. We played some good football today. We didn’t finish the game, made mistakes. They took advantage of it.
“Right now, we have to do things exactly right. It takes 11 of us to keep them bottled up. We’re not doing it every snap, for sure.”
Tennessee has now lost four of their first five SEC games of the season and only have one win against a Power Five opponent in six contests this season. This loss was Tennessee’s closest of the season by far. The Vols had lost three games by 26 points apiece and another by 37 points to Alabama.
Though he didn’t play a single down, Pruitt didn’t shy away from responsibility after the game. And he vowed to make sure he and his coaching staff learn from Saturday’s experience.
“This loss falls on everybody in that room and me most of all,” Pruitt added. “We’ve got to do a better job as a coaching staff to get our guys to execute at the highest level and not make those mistakes. We have to do that.”