A frustrating and painful day had a chance to turn out OK for No. 11 South Carolina as Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley’s desperation heave hung in the air with two minutes remaining here Saturday.
Instead, Volunteers freshman wide receiver Marquez North made a left-handed catch, with Gamecocks defensive back Ahmad Christian draped on his chest and holding his right arm, for a 39-yard gain that set up Tennessee’s winning field goal as time expired in a 23-21 Tennessee victory in front of 95,736 suddenly jubilant fans in Neyland Stadium.
“They hung a jump ball up on us, and their kid made a heck of a catch,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Our guy was grabbing his arm I guess, but he made a heck of a catch.”
The catch gave the Volunteers (4-3, 1-2 SEC) a first down at South Carolina’s 26-yard line, and Tennessee marched 24 yards from there to set up the decisive 19-yard field goal by Marcus Palardy. Worley, a Rock Hill native, had his eyes closed as he made the pass, said Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was putting pressure on Worley.
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“He closed his eyes,” Clowney said. “I looked at him in the face.”
Still, the ball was perfectly thrown, and what would have been fourth-and-10 turned into a haymaker from which the Gamecocks couldn’t recover.
“It was a single-receiver stutter route, a stutter-and-go,” Worley said. “We always say 12 equals six. He got to 12 yards, stuttered, broke the defender down, and I was fortunate enough to put in a place where he could make a play on it.”
None of Christian’s teammates or coaches questioned his role in the play.
“That was just an incredible catch,” South Carolina linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “Ahmad played great defense, and (North) just came up with a great catch.”
The Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC), who had burned two timeouts on their previous possession while Spurrier tried to decide whether to attempt a fourth-and-2 from his 26-yard line, were helpless to stop the clock after North’s catch and could only watch Palardy’s kick sail through the uprights as time expired and the Volunteers stormed the field to celebrate their third SEC win in the past 19 tries and first win against a ranked team since beating the Gamecocks in 2009.
“Nobody likes to lose any game, but I tell you this one hurt,” said sophomore tailback Mike Davis, who had 21 carries for 137 yards.
In more ways than one. Senior quarterback Connor Shaw and junior defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles both left the game in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be serious knee injuries.
Davis was hoping he would get a chance to end the game himself as Spurrier initially had decided to attempt to convert fourth-and-2 with three minutes left rather than punt to the Volunteers, but after calling back-to-back timeouts, and seeing Tennessee change its defensive alignment, Spurrier elected to kick the ball away.
“I always tell myself to go for those, but you always look stupid if you leave it on the 30-yard line, and our defense was playing well,” Spurrier said.
In his mind, Davis was urging Spurrier to go for it, Davis said.
“Like I said, whatever the coaches call, I am all for it,” he said. “Fourth-and-2, the coaches want to punt it, that’s what we have to go for.”
Davis had three carries in a fourth quarter that saw the Gamecocks run 12 plays and gain 15 yards.
“Yeah, Mike had 140 didn’t he? I wish we could have had about 10 (more) right there at the end,” Spurrier said.
Asked if the two timeouts spent hurt South Carolina at the end of the game, Spurrier replied, “Well, we might could have stopped them. Yeah, we might could have, but who knows.”
The Gamecocks fell behind 17-7 at halftime but appeared to be in good shape after scoring two touchdowns and gaining 163 yards in the third quarter to take a 21-17 lead. However, South Carolina opened the fourth quarter with three consecutive passes that led to fourth-and-10, and a 30-yard punt gave the Volunteers the ball at their 47-yard line.
Palardy capped that drive with a 33-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 21-20 and set up the dramatic final sequence.
“Obviously, you always go back and wish you had run here and thrown there, run here or thrown there,” Spurrier said. “We only attempted, how many passes? Twenty-two? We dang sure called a lot more than 22. Connor, I don’t know if the pressure got him ... He made some good run-outs, I’ll say that, and some other times we had guys open, and he got pressure, I guess.”
The Gamecocks must beat Missouri on Saturday in Columbia, Mo., to have any realistic chance of winning the SEC East.
“We have to finish the season strong,” Clowney said. “We lost. It happens.”
Tenn: FG Palardy 37, 9:14.
USC: Byrd 76 pass from Shaw (Fry kick), 14:50.
Tenn: Howard 6 pass from Worley (Palardy kick), 10:12.
Tenn: Neal 5 run (Palardy kick), 6:11.
USC: Davis 21 run (Fry kick), 9:46.
USC: Shaw 1 run (Fry kick), 2:50.
Tenn: FG Palardy 33, 10:11.
Tenn: FG Palardy 19, :00.
|Time of Possession||27:38||32:22|
RUSHING: South Carolina, Davis 21-137, Shaw 19-78, Thompson 1-6, Team 1-(minus 3). Tennessee, Neal 24-77, Lane 12-55, Worley 3-18, Team 1-(minus 1), Howard 1-(minus 3).
PASSING: South Carolina, Shaw 7-21-1-161, Thompson 1-1-0-5. Tennessee, Worley 19-34-0-179, Neal 0-1-0-0, Team 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: South Carolina, Byrd 4-121, Davis 2-16, Anderson 1-25, Jones 1-4. Tennessee, Howard 8-33, North 3-102, Downs 3-20, Neal 2-(minus 9), Croom 1-23, J.Johnson 1-6, Young 1-4.