Early in the week, South Carolina coach Will Muschamp told his team the word of the week was “finish.”
What a finish it was.
The Gamecocks beat No. 18 Tennessee 24-21 on Saturday night in front of 78,696 fans in Williams-Brice Stadium, but the victory wasn’t sealed until Volunteers kicker Aaron Medley’s 58-yard attempt fell short as time expired.
“I told our guys early in the week, ‘This game is going to come down to the fourth quarter,’ ” Muschamp said. “I felt that way all along, and I told them, ‘We have to go finish the game. We are going to have an opportunity. We have to finish.’ We didn’t finish Georgia. We didn’t finish Texas A&M. You have to learn to finish in these games.”
South Carolina (4-4, 2-4 SEC) hadn’t beaten Tennessee since 2012, hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent since 2014 and hadn’t beaten any SEC opponent – other than Vanderbilt – since 2014.
“This is the start of something toward the next games and the next couple years,” said linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, who was part of a defensive effort that held the Volunteers to 297 yards. “We wanted a signature spark.”
The Gamecocks had 325 total yards behind freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who was 15 of 20 for 167 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers in his first career SEC start. Freshman running back Rico Dowdle had 127 yards on 27 carries, and sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel added 83 receiving yards on eight catches.
“I’m proud of our players,” said Muschamp, who moved to 5-0 against the Volunteers in his head coaching career. “I told them after the game, ‘Just continue to invest, continue to have some belief, continue to have some confidence in what we’re doing, and some good things are going to happen.’ We know what good looks like, and we’re going to get there. Our guys played their guts out tonight.
“That locker room was a lot different locker room than we have had all year.”
South Carolina never trailed, but Tennessee got one last gasp possession starting at its 14-yard line with 35 seconds left. The Volunteers moved the ball to the Gamecocks 40-yard line before hustling Medley out onto the field. When his kick fell into the “Carolina” end zone, the Gamecocks players poured off the sideline and toward the student section and band to celebrate.
The game continued a series of nail-biters between these two teams. The past five meetings in this series have been decided by a total of 14 points.
Jamarcus King had two interceptions.
One snap after Tennessee got its first offensive spark of the night with a 34-yard run from John Kelly Jr. early in the fourth quarter, senior Volunteers quarterback Josh Dobbs fumbled while going into his throwing motion. South Carolina defensive end Darius English recovered the ball at the 50-yard line with 11:38 left in the game. Four plays later, Bentley found a wide open K.C. Crosby for a 35-yard touchdown that put South Carolina up 24-14 with 9:54 left in the game.
Star of the game: Dowdle had the first 100-yard rushing game of his career. He had a career-long 39-yard run in the third quarter and finished with more than 127 yards on 27 carries. It was the most by any Gamecocks tailback this season. Dowdle was shaken up in the fourth quarter when he fell on top the football, but he was not seriously injured, Muschamp said after the game.
Play of the game: Bentley’s 35-yard scoring pass to Crosby was revenge of a sort. The Volunteers blitzed the freshman all night and sacked him six times. On the scoring pass, Tennessee was coming with a corner blitz from the slot where Crosby was lined up, and Crosby was wide open and walked into the end zone.
Stat of the game: South Carolina held the ball for 12:02 of the third quarter.
Tennessee’s troubles: The Volunteers slow starts have become something of a joke around the SEC, but it can’t be funny for Tennessee fans to see their team enter every game looking so unprepared. South Carolina led 14-7 at halftime, meaning the Vols have been outscored 133-72 in the first half this season. Tennessee had 98 yards, six penalties and two bad special teams plays in the first half.
McIlwain missing: The Gamecocks might be dropping their Brandon McIlwain package. Last week against UMass, and on the first two drives against Tennessee, South Carolina used the freshman quarterback in short yardage and goal line situations in an attempt to give the team more rushing options. However, after McIlwain bounced a third-and-2 pass to stall the team’s second drive of the game, he didn’t play again.
Have a seat: South Carolina had two defensive backs ejected from the game. Cornerback Chris Lammons was thrown out in the first half after appearing to throw two punches at Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings after Jennings blocked him. Safety D.J. Smith was called for targeting and ejected in the fourth quarter when his helmet collided with Jennings after a 25-yard gain. By rule, Smith will be ineligible for the first half of next week’s game against Missouri. That might be a moot point considering Smith was shaken up on the play.
Who: Missouri at South Carolina
When: 4 p.m., Saturday
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 107.5 FM
HOW THEY SCORED
SC: Dowdle 1 run (Fry kick), 10:30
TEN: Hurd 1 run (Medley kick), 1:50
SC: B.Edwards 17 pass from Bentley (Fry kick), 12:46
SC: FG Fry 28, 1:49
TEN: Ev.Berry 100 kickoff return (Medley kick), 1:35
SC: Crosby 35 pass from Bentley (Fry kick), 9:54
TEN: Jennings 6 pass from Dobbs (Medley kick), 7:03
Time of Possession
RUSHING: Tennessee, J.Kelly 14-94, Dobbs 12-27, Hurd 8-16, Byrd 1-8, Ev.Berry 1-6, (Team) 1-(minus 15). South Carolina, Dowdle 27-127, Turner 7-28, Da.Williams 3-7, Samuel 1-6, McIlwain 1-(minus 1), Bentley 10-(minus 9).
PASSING: Tennessee, Dobbs 12-26-2-161, (Team) 0-1-0-0. South Carolina, McIlwain 0-1-0-0, Bentley 15-20-0-167.
RECEIVING: Tennessee, Malone 4-42, Jennings 3-54, Croom 2-22, Et.Wolf 1-25, J.Kelly 1-17, Jo.Smith 1-1. South Carolina, Samuel 8-83, B.Edwards 4-41, Crosby 1-35, Hurst 1-9, Dowdle 1-(minus 1).
MISSED FIELD GOALS: Tennessee, Medley 58.