South Carolina fumbled the ball. At least, according to two of Tennessee’s defensive players.
Late in the third quarter with the Vols leading 24-16 over South Carolina, Gamecock running back Rico Dowdle received a hand-off at the goal line to try and punch it in for a touchdown. He bobbled the initial hand-off, ran into a huge crowd of both Tennessee and Gamecock players, and he disappeared for a moment.
Just a few seconds later, Tennessee linebacker Daniel Bituli emerged from the pile with the football, and he started to run downfield.
The Vols thought they had recovered a fumbled at the goal line, but the officials never signaled anything. Dowdle got shaken up on the play, so during the break the SEC Network broadcast showed replay after replay of what just happened, trying to determine if Dowdle had, in fact, fumbled the ball.
But apparently, the officials weren’t doing the same.
There was never an announced official review of the play, and the Gamecocks would go on to score on the next play on a Ty’Son Williams run, and they would convert on the two-point conversion to tie the game at 24 with five seconds left in the third quarter.
Two of Tennessee’s defenders are convinced the correct call wasn’t made on the field on that play.
“Yeah, it was a fumble,” UT defensive lineman Shy Tuttle said after the game. “(Dowdle) wasn’t down. He was on top of some offensive linemen.”
Tuttle was one of the many bodies in the giant pile at the goal line, and he claims he saw enough to know it was a fumble. When he was asked why Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt didn’t challenge the play, he said it was because they all thought the officials were already reviewing it. That, and someone claimed the play had been whistled dead before the ball came out.
“We thought they were watching it,” Tuttle said of the officials. “(Pruitt) thought so, too. They said they ruled (the play) dead.”
Tuttle wasn’t the only Vol who thought the play should’ve been called differently. The man who forced the ball out of Dowdle’s hands also believed Tennessee didn’t get the right call.
“I felt like I punched the ball out,” linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. stated. “We just didn’t get the call. We’ve just got to keep playing football.”
The many replay angles shown on SEC Network never clearly showed a good enough angle to determine what happened on the play, and it remains unclear if the officials would’ve seen enough to overturn the call on the field anyway. But clearly Tennessee’s defensive players felt the play should’ve at least been reviewed, and they’re convinced the ball came out before the play was whistled dead.
Still, the “no-call” in this situation may have hurt the Vols, but Tennessee lost for other reasons besides poor officiating. Tennessee had nine penalties, and almost all of them were costly. Six of those penalties were pre-snap infractions on offense, and five of those pre-snap fouls happened on either third or fourth down plays. The Vols also gave up 224 yards on the ground in the game and allowed South Carolina to pick up 8.5 yards per play in the second half.
Tennessee will never know what might’ve happened if that goal line play had been reviewed. But at least two of UT’s defenders are certain that the right call wasn’t made.