Tennessee’s win against South Carolina on Saturday night was impressive in many aspects, and it wasn’t any old ordinary victory for the Vols, either.
Two weeks ago, Tennessee found a way to grit out a 20-10 win against Mississippi State. What that game lacked in flash and explosiveness it made up for in toughness and physicality. That win showed that the Vols were capable of playing a different brand of football than they had been playing the last three years.
But Saturday’s win over the Gamecocks? That hearkened back to a style of Tennessee football we haven’t seen in quite some time.
The Vols had every reason to lay down and quit on Saturday. Heck, they had every reason to lay down and quit several times before Saturday’s game even happened. With the way this 2019 season began, with the types of losses this team has sustained, with the departure of many players both due to transfer and injury, it’s a wonder this team had the mental fortitude to make it to where they were before Saturday’s game.
Then, the game happened. And the Vols got punched right in the face right at the very beginning.
South Carolina’s first play of the game went for a 75-yard touchdown. The very first play of the game.
Eleven seconds were off the clock to start the game, and South Carolina already had a touchdown lead.
Fast forward to Tennessee’s first offensive possession, and the Vols had a perfect play call with Jauan Jennings at quarterback. The fifth-year senior ran for 11 yards on his first play as a wildcat quarterback, then he connected with fellow receiver Marquez Callaway for 33 yards after receiving the pitch from redshirt freshman JT Shrout.
The only problem? Center Brandon Kennedy made a mental error and was deemed as an ineligible player downfield.
Officiating would be a constant issue for Tennessee in the game, and there were multiple times where a call — or a missed call — changed the makeup of a drive or of the game.
Even before all of that, Tennessee had to worry about what they would do at quarterback. Starting QB Brian Maurer was ruled out before the game as he recovered from repeated hits to the head and neck in back-to-back weeks. The Vols weren’t left with great options to replace him, either. They either gave the offense over to a redshirt freshman making his first career start — a redshirt freshman who by all accounts has a lot of upside but is still very raw in the nuances of the game — or a redshirt junior who just endured his lowest moment of his UT career the prior week at Alabama.
With how the Alabama game ended, with how the Vols were jobbed by the officials in that game, and with how the South Carolina game started, things could’ve easily gotten out of hand quickly on Saturday.
But through all of that, Tennessee stayed the course. To quote the legendary Pat Summitt, the team took a collective “left foot, right foot, breathe” approach to the game.
And it paid off.
Tennessee and South Carolina exchanged punches after that initial touchdown, and the Vols’ defense clamped down after giving up that monstrous play to begin the game. The Gamecocks went three-and-out on their next two drives, and Tennessee’s offense managed a field goal and took a 17-play, 77-yard drive all the way down to the South Carolina one-yard line before failing to convert on fourth down.
South Carolina took over at their own goal line, and after picking up one first down, they were forced to punt. It was a low line drive, and Marquez Callaway was able to field it, create some space, and sprint his way into the end zone to give UT the lead.
From there, the two teams would exchange the lead three times before the end of the first half.
In the second half, Tennessee played one of the most dominating halves of football they’ve played as a program in the last decade. And that, along with overcoming all the hardships that had built up beforehand, is why Saturday’s win wasn’t a “normal” victory.
Tennessee came out and absolutely suffocated the Gamecocks in the second half. The Vols couldn’t connect on a field goal on their opening drive of the half, but it was apparent on that drive that Tennessee had a buzz about them. That buzz carried over to the defense, as the Vols forced another three-and-out with a third down sack by Darrell Taylor.
The Vols’ offense would grab the lead on the next drive thanks to Guarantano finding Jennings in the back in the end zone for a 19-yard strike, giving UT a 24-21 lead.
They wouldn’t give up that lead the rest of the game.
South Carolina had back-to-back three-and-outs after that touchdown by Tennessee, and the Vols extended their lead to 31-21 by the end of the third quarter. The Gamecocks were held to just 58 yards of offense in the third quarter, and they didn’t pick up a single third down conversion in four tries.
In the fourth quarter, it was more of the same.
Tennessee kicked a field goal on offense, then Daniel Bituli blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the end zone for the decisive touchdown, giving the Vols a 41-21 lead and giving them their 24th unanswered point of the game.
Carolina would go on two more drives in the fourth quarter, but both ended on failed fourth down conversions at the Tennessee 45-yard line.
Tennessee held the Gamecocks to just 168 yards of offense in the second half, only giving up 4.1 yards per play. South Carolina was 0-for-9 on third downs, and they were 1-of-4 on fourth down attempts. The Vols’ offense, meanwhile, averaged 7.8 yards a play in the final half of play, and Tennessee scored on both offense and special teams.
Speaking of that offense, it totaled 485 yards on the night and averaged 7.1 yards a play. Of those 485 yards, 351 came through the air, and all three offensive touchdowns came on passes as well.
All of that happened despite Tennessee playing three different players at quarterback, none of which were the starter the previous three weeks.
The Vols’ second half performance against the Gamecocks was arguably their best play in the second half of a game since their 38-28 victory over Florida in 2016. In that game, Tennessee reeled off 35 unanswered points in the second half before a late Florida touchdown in the final five minutes of the game made the score 38-28.
Against South Carolina, the Vols outscored the Gamecocks 24-0 in the second half, shut them out on third down, scored on special teams, totaled two sacks, and held a strong South Carolina rushing attack to just 21 yards on nine carries. And they did all that without Darel Middleton on the defensive line and without their starting quarterback at the helm of the offense.
Not only that, but the Vols’ play in the second half against South Carolina reversed a trend Tennessee had built up against Will Muschamp-led teams in the second half.
Dating back to his time as Florida’s head coach from 2011-14, Will Muschamp’s teams had outscored the Vols 90-62 in the second half of games. At South Carolina, his Gamecocks had outscored the Vols 40-24 in the final half of play the last three years. The only time UT outscored one of his teams was in 2016 (14-10). That game still resulted in a loss, and that game is still remembered for UT’s inability to pick up yards, execute, and make enough stops in the second half.
On Saturday, Tennessee completely reversed that.
South Carolina was the team that couldn’t find a way to execute, couldn’t find a way to get stops, and couldn’t find a way to get on the scoreboard. Tennessee scored the same amount of second half points (24) on Saturday night as they had in total in the final half of play against the Gamecocks in the last three years.
Tennessee’s win against South Carolina on Saturday won’t go down as the most impressive victory in program history, nor will it be the most memorable ever. But for where the win came at this point in the season and for how completely dominant the Vols were in all three phases of the game, it served as a reminder of what Tennessee football can (and should) be. And the excitement it brought to the players and the fans in the moment cannot be overstated.
Vol fans have been searching for that elusive “turning point” for Tennessee football for years. Saturday night could prove to be just that, not only for this season, but for the program at large.