By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – October 27, 2018)
It was a dramatic game, well-played on one side of the ball throughout much of the game, but it was also an infuriating night for Jeremy Pruitt and likely for Vols fans across the nation. Why? Well, because in a game that was this close, self-inflicted mistakes and questionable officiating will be the talking points.
Those two things…and the run defense. And on the opposite side, Tyson Helton called by far his best game as OC and Jarrett Guarantano was 27/39 with two touchdowns and no INTs.
Tennessee led the game 21-9, but would be outscored 18-3 the rest of the way, and a little basic addition will tell you…that was enough to swing the outcome by a field goal.
Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from Tennessee’s 27-24 loss in Columbia to the South Carolina Gamecocks.
INVISIBLE AGAINST THE RUN
Whatever anger Tennessee might have about the officiating or various penalties, the REAL reason they lost the football game was a complete inability to stop the South Carolina rushing attack. This was a team that was 12th in the SEC in rushing, as the Gamecocks simply have not been able to run it all season long. They either got really right during the bye week – like all time right – or the Vols were anemic attempting to handle Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams, and even Jake Bentley a few times.
The stats are just gross. Will Muschamp’s club rushed for 224 yards on 40 carries, good for 5.6 yards per carry. Folks, that’s just not good enough. It’s really that simple. Every time the Vols offense would head down the field for a score, the Gamecocks would answer with chunk yards from the running back position.
It all really started with the last drive of the first half. Tennessee was in full control, but lost Mr. Mo heading into the intermission after giving up a late score. It never looked quite the same defensively from that point forward.
The time of possession on the three South Carolina TD drives in the third quarter is disgusting: 1:57, 1:22, 1:42. Missed tackles, total whiffs, and not finishing through the whistle all cost the Vols at different times.
THIRD DOWN SUCCESS
Jarrett Guarantano was very good passing on third down, at one point 8/10 in that category. Overall, the Volunteers were 11 for 16 on third downs, which sounds fantastic, because it is. This is a team that has struggled to keep drives alive, but in Columbia that wasn’t the problem. Four times on the evening, Tennessee put together drives of double-figure plays, and a fifth spanned nine and resulted in a touchdown.
When somebody needed to make a play, and often it was Marquez Callaway on this night, the Vols stepped up in a hostile environment and found a way to stay on the field. Guarantano was good, the receivers were good, the backs were good, Helton’s play calling was several notches above any other game he’s controlled this season, which makes the loss that much more hard to stomach for UT fans who KNOW in their hearts they could have won this game.
VOLS ACTUALLY MOVED IT ON THE GROUND
Just as South Carolina ran it well, FINALLY so did Tennessee. It wasn’t as gaudy, but 34 carries for 144 yards is an improvement over what we’ve seen much of the season. Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan handled the brunt of the workload, but Carlos Fils-Aime found his way into the end zone as well. It was definitely a step in the right direction, although you still hope to see more consistency. Much of the success came during the UT rhythm of the first half to two-thirds of the game.
Later on, when the Gamecocks regained the momentum and began gashing the Volunteers, it shifted and some of the earlier 5-6 yard carries became 2-3 and each Vols yard was harder to come by. However, there was much more to like about the ground game tonight. Unfortunately, the defense made sure the storyline was the South Carolina run offense rather than their own.
SPOTTY FROM THE STRIPES
The officials were on screen far too much during the night, but the sequence Vols fans will be talking about all week long came after Tennessee took a 24-16 lead with 1:47 remaining in the third quarter. Jake Bentley found Bryan Edwards for 73 yards on a bomb as the talented (but drop-prone) Gamecock receiver got loose from Alontae Taylor. With the ball on the 2 yard line, it got confusing…and bad.
Ty’Son Williams appeared to cross the goal line, but the call on the field put him down at the “half foot line.” The replay angles on the SEC Network continue to stink royally, as none of them were clear enough. My eyes told me he got there, but overturning it would have been difficult. The wrong call was likely made on the field.
Another ridiculous portion of this situation is that SC ran another play as the whistle then blew to REVIEW the previous one, and that whistle wiped out what looked like a touchdown for Rico Dowdle. Will Muschamp was incensed and slammed his headset down. He had reason to.
But wait, we’re not done.
On the next play, Rico Dowdle tripped as he ran into his own blocker and went head first into Daniel Bituli, injuring his neck. He lost the football before hitting the ground, but the officials blew the play dead. The whistle came AFTER the fumble, but inexplicably, especially after reviewing the Williams play (which shouldn’t have happened, especially considering the TD that occurred moments later), this one wasn’t reviewed. Daniel Bituli picked up the obvious fumble and actually ran it all the way for a TD, but that was waived off. Jeremy Pruitt was screaming on the sidelines. He had reason to.
Next play? South Carolina touchdown.
What. A. Mess.
SELF-INJURY PROVES COSTLY
Fans can argue about both personal foul penalties as Jauan Jennings was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct infraction for celebrating after his touchdown catch. The ensuing drive on the short field resulted in a Gamecocks touchdown. In the second half, Marquez Callaway was called for shoving a member of the SC secondary from behind, which would move the Vols from the red zone to the 32 yard line. Brent Cimaglia hit his longest field goal of the season from 46, but this felt like a touchdown drive prior to that point.
For the day, the Vols committed FIVE false start or procedure penalties. That’s bad enough, but how about this addendum to that statistic: All five came on either third down (4) or fourth down (1). Goodness gracious. That makes the 11-16 on third down number all the more impressive.
Nine penalties cost the Vols 75 yards in this game. On the flip side, South Carolina was flagged just twice for nine total yards. That’s a discrepancy, and it’s one that’s on Tennessee’s lack of discipline far more than anything else.
SHY TUTTLE (AND ALSO BITULI)
I debated whether to go with the OL here as they broke a bit late and Guarantano took a few unfortunate coverage sacks, but on a night where the defense struggled so much, Shy Tuttle deserves some props. He not only intercepted a Bentley pass in the first quarter that was knocked into the Palmetto sky by Daniel Bituli, he also blocked an extra point on the night.
While he didn’t play a perfect game, as no one in a Volunteer uniform did on the defensive side of the ball, his pick off the Bituli deflection led to the first Tennessee touchdown and his XP block forced the Gamecocks to go for two at 24-22. Bentley was able to get into the end zone, because of course he did (he was running the ball, so it was a foregone conclusion), but Shy Tuttle made two of the biggest plays of the night. Bituli should have had a fumble recovery and a TD, but we already discussed that. Both guys made key contributions.
THE LAST WORD
Not a single game remains on the Volunteers’ schedule that this team can’t win, but they are also very much capable of losing all of them, sans Charlotte next Saturday, if they commit bad penalties and struggle with the run. Kentucky in particular should frighten fans because unlike South Carolina, Benny Snell CAN really tote that rock. The run defense has got to be better. The discipline has got to be better. But there is definite hope in Knoxville. Also interesting is the fact that this team continues to play its best ball on the road. Not one home performance this season has been noteworthy in a positive way. We’ll see if that changes going forward.
JG and the offense played well enough to win tonight, but penalties, some weird officiating, and absolutely Halloween horror show rush defense, which enabled just enough passing from Bentley in that second half, doomed the Vols. It felt like Tennessee beat themselves more than South Carolina beat them, which of course has to make everybody in that locker room ill.