COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the past decade, Tennessee fans have grown weary of watching their teams lose games in bizarre and sometimes inexplicable ways.
On Saturday, it felt like the shoe was finally on the other foot, as a late punt caromed off the leg of a South Carolina player who had his back to the ball, allowing Tennessee to escape Columbia with a 31-27 win over the Gamecocks.
Jimmy Holiday recovered the muffed punt with 1:24 remaining, denying South Carolina an opportunity to get the ball back late.
The win, coupled with Mississippi State’s upset win at defending national champion LSU in Mike Leach’s debut, gave the 16th-ranked Vols the SEC’s longest active winning streak, at seven games. Ironically, that winning streak began against South Carolina last October.
By turn on Saturday, Tennessee looked like a team that can compete for the SEC East championship and a team that will struggle for bowl eligibility. However, on a night when the positives out-weighed the negatives, the Vols finished with 394 yards of total offense and did not trail after answering a South Carolina touchdown that the Gamecocks scored on the game’s opening possession.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano continued to struggle with consistency. The fifth-year senior made some big throws, while also missing wide open receivers. He finished 19 of 31 for 259 yards and a touchdown. Ty Chandler was the workhorse of Tennessee’s backfield, with 86 yards on 13 carries. Josh Palmer was the leading receiver, with six catches for 85 yards and a score.
Defensively, Tennessee looked exceptionally good in the first half, outside of the Gamecocks’ opening drive. In fact, after that game-opening score, South Carolina did not sniff the end zone again in the first half. Tennessee took a 14-7 lead to the locker room, after Guarantano scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak and star sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o returned an interception 32 yards for a score.
But South Carolina began to find some success, both through the air and on the ground, in the second half. The Gamecocks quickly drove the length of the field on each of their first two possessions of the second half to tie the game, 21-21. New quarterback Collin Hill was 25 of 39 for 290 yards and a score, and standout wide receiver Shi Smith torched Tennessee’s secondary, with 10 catches for 140 yards and a score.
There were also special teams miscues for Tennessee. A long snap rolled to punter Paxton Brooks in the first quarter, who appeared to panic and did not get a punt off. Later, Brent Cimaglia — one of the most accurate kickers in UT history — missed a 46-yard field goal attempt.
But in the end, all of the above were just good enough. Guarantano had no accuracy issues on a key fourth quarter drive, completing two perfectly-thrown passes to get the Vols to the end zone after South Carolina had kicked a field goal to tie the game at 24. The second of the two was a 32-yard scoring strike to Palmer.
And Tennessee’s defense held South Carolina, forcing a 45-yard field goal with 3:16 remaining that cut the lead to 31-27.
Needing just two first downs to effectively kill the clock, Tennessee saw Chandler pick up eight yards on first down, leading to one first down and punching the ball into South Carolina territory. But things went horribly awry after that. There were two procedural penalties and two lost yardage plays, putting the Vols in a 4th and 24 situation and making it appear that the dangerous Hill-Smith combination would have one last opportunity to end the game.
However, the punt bounced off of Gamecock player Cam Smith, and Holiday recovered at the South Carolina 18-yard-line. With no time outs remaining, the Gamecocks were powerless to stop the clock.
Next up for Tennessee will be the home opener against Missouri on October 3. Kickoff is set for noon at Neyland Stadium.