David Cloninger

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Tennessee



Admiral! There be a quarterback here!

Jake Bentley led his team to a win against a Top 25 SEC division opponent, not just some squad cashing a check for traveling down south. His numbers were good, his reads excellent and he made some very tight throws. He even had a couple of terrific runs (one for a touchdown that was negated).

It’s only two starts, but he didn’t play like it was his second start. He has the same offensive line and cautious play-calling his predecessors had (granted, he also has healthy receivers and the team’s best running back), but he makes it work. Some of the plays he made, like scrambling and pointing on the run to keep the defense back and give him room to hit the sticks, aren’t made by fifth-year seniors, let alone some wet -- sorry, DRY -- behind-the-ears rookie playing on national TV.

A freshman at home on Halloween weekend that beats Tennessee. Getting harder not to think …


That’s “Taneyhill Scale.” How did The Kid rate this week?

* Beat No. 18 Tennessee in his second start. Taneyhill beat No. 16 Tennessee in his third start. RANK: 8 of 10.

* Bentley has to lead USC to two more wins to get to a bowl, after inheriting a 2-4 team. Taneyhill inherited an 0-5 team in an 11-game season and had to win all six remaining games for a bowl (which he nearly did if not for a bad call at Florida). RANK: 4 of 10.

* Still needs a long blonde wig over the buzzcut. RANK: 0 of 10.

* Hope springs eternal. We all remember what Taneyhill did in the final game of 1992. Clemson is content to let other teams just hand them wins. Perhaps the luck runs out at the end of next month. If so … RANK: 20 of 10.


My, that all-black looked sharp under the lights. Next week’s game starts mid-afternoon and ends at night.

Never mess with a winning streak.


Tennessee easily could have won the game had it eliminated any one of the following mistakes.

* Nine penalties for 87 yards. They included an offside on third-and-6, allowing USC to convert short yardage and extend its first drive, which ended in a touchdown. Also a block in the back on the Volunteers’ first drive, which made it first-and-20 and ended in a punt. Those were just in the first quarter.

* How was that a touchback? The best punt anybody has ever seen (hint: These always happen against the Gamecocks) went to the 5-yard-line, bounced to the 1 and just stuck in the grass. Tennessee’s special-teamers went flying by it to keep it where it was and the ball never moved from its spot. Yet it was a touchback. USC started from the 20 instead of the half-inch line, when the Vols’ pass-rush was doing its best to turn the “4” stamped on Bentley’s jersey into two numbers.

* Joshua Dobbs may have gotten hit by a teammate but that crucial fumble left his hand in a very strange way. It’s like he was going to pass and lost it on the laces (Dondrial Pinkins flashback). Either way, that turned a Tennessee drive in a three-point game into a USC touchdown drive and a 10-point game.

* This is the same team that beat Georgia on a Hail Mary, right? The same team that somehow fumbled forward into the end zone to beat Appalachian State, right? The same team that let Clemson borrow its Orange Horseshoe since Week 5?

With all that going for you, why would you ever, ever think of trying a 58-yard field goal to tie the game instead of throwing another pass to the end zone to win it?

All these answers and more on the next episode of “Butch Jones’ Head Explodes.”


Rico Dowdle is so good that soon he’s going to weigh the benefits of changing his name’s pronunciation to “Dow-DELL.”

So he can ring that championship bell.


Deebo Samuel caught a pass down the sideline while being interfered with, his jersey pulled to the side so you could barely read “Carolina” because of some pumpkin-colored glove grabbing the letters.

Alshon Jeffery applauded.


If USC’s stadium production team had any sense of foreshadowing, it would have cued up Run-DMC’s “Hit It Run” after Mark King’s first interception. On that second pick, just think how loud the BeastBoard could have pumped, “I’m the KINNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGG … ”


It wasn’t easy for Kurt Roper to call that game, since it was smart to use the run but Tennessee began stopping it, and avoiding the pass after Derek Barnett said, “I got this.” Yet he rolled the dice for a winner more often than not, his third-down pass play to Hayden Hurst the icepick to the Vols’ hearts.


Elliott Fry is two points away from passing Collin Mackie as the Gamecocks’ career-leading scorer. USC sure does love its sawed-off runt football players who never do anything but deliver (see Shaw, Connor).


The hope has been restored. The Gamecocks are two wins from bowl eligibility and have two home games remaining against Missouri and Western Carolina. They also have a game at a struggling Florida team and at those orange folks in the Upstate, the ones whose luck has to run out sometime.

Just being in Williams-Brice last night, after the game, the stands still shaking as the fans hollered “GAME! COCKS!” and not wanting to leave, it was like old times. Of course, those times aren’t that old, but now …

Well, if USC does turn this around, perhaps going from decent to great in the blink of an eye won’t be taken for granted.



Fans have saved their biggest amount of scorn this year for offensive line coach Shawn Elliott. It is true that Elliott’s line hasn’t performed up to snuff (while the run-blocking was much improved Saturday – against a terrible rush defense – Bentley was being turned into a black-suited marshmallow back there) but he was feeling OK this week.

That’s because special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler is now on USC fans’ (rude word for poop) list.

Samuel caught a punt Saturday and earned a sarcastic ovation from the crowd. That’s due to USC’s past seven games of not fielding punts and Saturday’s first half of the same problem. The Gamecocks’ kickoff returners still haven’t figured out that you get 25 free yards if you take a knee in the end zone. Punter Sean Kelly, the team’s MVP last year, is doing OK but not nearly as well as he was doing.

And then “IT,” which could have meant the game. Immediately after USC made it 17-7, Evan Berry took a kickoff 100 yards to the end zone. He wasn’t touched.

I mean it. Not one millimeter of Under Armour glove touched one thread of white uniform. It’s bad enough the Gamecocks can’t find one guy to boom it out of the end zone to rule out any kick returns (I like Fry but he shouldn’t be doing kickoffs) but then momentum is thrown away in the span of 14 seconds.

Urban Meyer is not a great person, but the guy won three national championships while saying that playing special teams is a privilege. The Gamecocks would do good to remember that last part.


As soon as the fight song faded away after the Gamecocks took the field, the stadium PA should have launched right into “Back in Black.” Or really, any song off that record. #ShootToThrill


The Gamecocks tried the Brandon McIlwain Playbook again. He enters and it’s a big flashing sign to the defense reading, “HEY! THIS GUY RIGHT HERE IS GONNA RUN IT.”

They did try a pass this time. It was thrown on the run and incomplete.

There has to be a better way to use this guy. Even if it’s at third base on spring weekends.


Chris Lammons apologized for the tussle that got him thrown out and as it stands now, he won’t have to miss any of the Missouri game (although pulling that stunt with the SEC Commissioner in the stadium wasn’t smart). It’s good that Lammons was accountable.

It’s bad that a junior who was coming into his own as an SEC cornerback got into it in the first place, trying to sneak in a kidney shot and then pulling the ultimate stupid ploy of swinging at a helmet. Even if you get away with it – is it possible to intercept passes with a busted hand?


D.J. Smith did nothing wrong. He tried to slam on the brakes and had his arms up. It’s not his fault that a 6-foot-3 wide receiver (Smith is 5-11) bent at the waist, thereby lowering his head so it came into contact with Smith’s helmet.

It’s a terrible rule enforced by officials’ judgment. They have to decide if the player intended to do it. It was obvious to anybody with two good eyes Smith did everything he could to avoid it.

Then again, officials have never been known to have two good eyes.


There were empty pockets of sections at Williams-Brice. For a night game on national TV against a team that wears orange.

While it was still impressive to see the students waving their towels to “Sandstorm,” there is no excuse for not filling that stadium.


Hurst has been so good it’s easy to forget he’s still getting back into football after a short baseball career. The hold he was tagged for wasn’t egregious but it wiped a touchdown.

Maybe just brush the guy back next time.


The Gamecocks led 14-7 late in the second with 1:49 to play, on their 24. There was time to get the immortal Fry in position to try a 50-yarder.

Nope. USC had the lead. So it played safe. Run, run, run, run, head to the locker room. Against a Tennessee team that has played its best football in the second half all season and got the ball first in the third quarter.

The boos showering from the stands were deserved. Even though USC wound up with the glory, guts have to play a part in it.



Fans have been on my tail to write an “I was wrong” column in response to this one about Jake Bentley. I’m not going to – yet – because I’m not wrong – yet.

USC has won a couple of games and that’s great. Bentley has moved the Gamecocks into position for a bowl game, which is terrific considering the amount of talent this team began with and also that a bowl game for this program should never be overlooked.

But I got the questions last night, and I’ll continue to get them if more wins appear on the schedule, just as I predicted – what would USC’s record be if Bentley had started sooner?

Looking at how Kentucky, Mississippi State and Georgia have stunk their way through the season, devil’s advocate says that if Bentley played those games, USC would be leading the SEC East right now. It’s easy to say that, but we don’t know if Bentley would have been the same quarterback if he had been asked to play sooner. There’s only what we see happening now, and not thinking of, “Well, who knows if he could have led a game-winning drive against Vanderbilt?”

Bentley’s emergence has also raised another question that won’t go away, and that’s what to do with McIlwain. The last two games haven’t revealed a great plan on how he can help this football team, and I doubt he’s going to be very happy being a backup, especially when there is no separation by year between him and Bentley. McIlwain remained loyal to the Gamecocks throughout a coaching change and Major League Baseball offering to make him a very rich man, and while I certainly realize how roster restrictions leave scarce room for rewards, it’d be nice to repay that loyalty.

Starting Bentley was the right call in order to win now (at least, the first two games). It also raised more questions than it answered. But the Gamecocks are winning, and they could have a fine season despite the multitude of issues they faced before this (and I’ll go on record right now saying that if this team gets to a bowl game despite all it faced, Will Muschamp ought to be SEC Coach of the Year in a landslide). None of the issues that are looming matter.


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