No. 16 Tennessee squeaked out a 31-27 win over South Carolina in Colombia on Saturday night.
The Vols (1-0) led late and after being unable to run the clock out on offense, were forced to punt with 1:30 remaining. South Carolina (0-1) was out of timeouts, but was fortunate to be getting the ball back with a chance to drive down the field and pick up a win. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, however, the Tennessee punt hit the leg of a Carolina player that caused a fumble and allowed the Vols to fall on it to secure the win.
“I’m just tickled to death that we won,” Pruitt told reporters over Zoom following the game. “I think, by everybody getting to play tonight, (it) absolutely was a win for some of these guys, and I’m glad that we got a chance to do that. I’m proud of our players. I’m proud of our staff, everybody in our organization.”
It was a close game throughout. South Carolina jumped out to a 7-0 lead thanks to a Kevin Harris three-yard rushing touchdown on the opening drive of the game. Following adversity due to a poor snap from freshman long-snapper Will Albright, Tennessee was able to tie the game at seven-all on a quarterback sneak from Jarrett Guarantano.
“It was either the first four or five days we didn’t even do special teams,” Pruitt said. “Because all of the specialists were in quarantine. And then when they all got back, half our team was in quarantine, so we couldn’t really cover kicks.
“Will Albright, we think is one of the best long snappers in the country, ok? He made a mistake… Will is going to be a great player for us.”
Tennessee sophomore inside linebacker Henry To’o To’o gave his best effort to make sure the Vols wouldn’t trail again. To’o To’o snagged the ball out of the air on a tipped pass and returned it 32-yards to give the Vols a 14-7 lead just moments into the second quarter.
“I was juiced,” To’o To’o said of his big play. “I was pretty happy. My first interception as a college player.”
Neither team would score the remainder of the first half, leading to a 14-7 Tennessee lead. The Vols had a chance to go up 21-7 before halftime, but a couple of missed throws from Guarantano and a sack prevented that from happening.
Tennessee came out firing to start the second half despite a sloppy finish to the first 30 minutes. The Vols marched down the field and took a 21-7 lead on a 12-yard rushing touchdown from Eric Gray.
South Carolina responded, scoring on the very next drive. Collin Hill marched the Gamecocks down the field thanks to two big pass plays and cut the lead to 21-14 with 10:27 remaining in the third quarter.
Carolina scored on its very next position following a missed 46-yard field goal off the leg of Vols kicker Brent Cimaglia. The missed field goal allowed Hill to sneak it in at the goal line and tie the game at 21-all with 4:32 remaining.
Like Carolina, Tennessee immediately responded to adversity after blowing a two-touchdown lead. Guarantano found Ty Chandler out of the backfield and then hit Brandon Johnson for a big game before Cimaglia redeemed himself to give the Vols a 24-21 lead with 2:21 remaining in the third.
Tennessee would relinquish the lead once more following the Cimaglia field goal. South Carolina responded with a field goal of its own, but it could have been much worse for the Vols. The Gamecocks were driving, but Kivon Bennett came up with a key stop on the edge to force third-and-long, and then Deandre Johnson came up with a sack to force the field goal attempt.
Bennett and Johnson had terrific nights from their outside linebacker positions.
The Vols took the lead for good following the Carolina field goal. Chandler got the series going with a couple of big runs, and Guarantano found Johnson wide open over the middle of the field for a big gain in part because Gray had a tremendous blitz pick up. A play later, Guarantano delivered his best ball of the game, a 32-yard touchdown to a streaking Josh Palmer down the sideline. It proved to be the difference in the game despite some late game drama.
“They believe in each other,” Pruitt said. “They believe in our program. They believe in our culture. I mean, it’s not easy in this league. We’re not going to complain about winning a football game, I can tell you that. We’re going to celebrate winning one. On the road in this league, it’s hard to do. So we’re going to celebrate and go back and fix what we can fix tomorrow.”
Tennessee now turns its attention to Missouri, who lost 38-19 to No. 2 Alabama on Saturday evening. The Vols will kickoff with the Tigers (0-1) in their home-opener next Saturday at 12 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.