South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson told his players before Saturday’s game against Tennessee that they were going to have to make a play to win the game, but for most of the afternoon the Gamecocks defense played so well that there wouldn’t be any call for late-game heroics.
However, after South Carolina went ahead 15-9 on a 36-yard Parker White field with 1:13 left in the game, the Volunteers had one last gasp, connecting on a long pass and then running six plays in the Gamecocks red zone in the final minute, including two in the final four seconds. Only when Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s pass from the 2-yard fell incomplete did South Carolina officially have a 15-9 victory over the Volunteers.
“Honestly, TRob said that before the game, he said, ‘We are going to be on the field and win this game,’” Gamecocks defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth said. “Anything that come out of TRob’s mouth come true. Somehow, it always comes true.”
South Carolina improved to 5-2 overall and 3-2 in the SEC in front of 98,104 fans in Neyland Stadium, while the home team Vols fell to 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the SEC, putting head coach Butch Jones’ job security further in doubt.
Once again, the Gamecocks defense led the way, holding the Volunteers and their first-time freshman starter at quarterback to 253 yards. In a seven-possession stretch from the second quarter until late in the fourth, South Carolina’s defense allowed a combined 56 yards.
“We kind of knew what to expect. This is (Guarantano’s) first game. His head was going to be everywhere,” said Gamecocks defensive end D.J. Wonnum, who had six tackles and two sacks. “We had to keep him in the pocket. That was the main thing.”
The Volunteers had a 9-3 lead at halftime, but South Carolina’s offense finally got on track in the second half, gaining 219 of its 323 yards after halftime. The Gamecocks tied the game 9-9 on a 20-yard touchdown run by A.J. Turner, who had a game-high 86 rushing yards all in the second half, with 1:02 left in the third quarter. They took the lead on a 21-yard field goal from White with 5:17 left in the game.
“The heart of our football team shows up again, the culture of our program, the way those guys continued to fight and willed it out,” said South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, who improved to 6-0 all-time against Tennessee. “Our guys continued to fight.”
Especially at the end. South Carolina entered the game fourth in the SEC in red zone defense and held the Vols to three field goals on four trips inside the 20-yard line. Still, Turner was worried, he admitted, that the Vols had the kind of late-minute magic they used to beat Georgia on the final play of a game last year.
“To be honest, that was in my head from when they played Georgia,” Turner said. “I was like, ‘Man, I hope nothing like that happens.’ I did have confidence in our defense, though.”
It was well-placed.
“That’s what we live for,” said linebacker Skai Moore, who had a team-high nine tackles. “We talk about that. We love that pressure. We love being on the field last. It’s what we live for on defense.”
Star of the game: Turner played sparingly the first half but was the bulk of the Gamecocks offense in the second. In addition to scoring the game’s only touchdown, he had 86 rushing yards, all in the second half. It was the second-highest rushing total by a South Carolina player this year. “I feel like our line has done a great job,” Turner said. “They have been improving since Game 1. I give a lot of credit to them because without them I wouldn’t have gotten anything.”
Play of the game: It was actually three plays, the three the Vols ran from South Carolina’s 2-yard line in the final 20 seconds of the game. All three were incomplete passes. “Credit our players. We work a lot in practice down there,” Muschamp said. “They understand a lot about what people are going to try to do to you down there. Credit our defensive staff, those guys do a fantastic job.”
Stat of the game: South Carolina’s offensive fortunes rose and fell almost exclusively on the Gamecocks third-down success or failure. South Carolina started the game 0-for-6 on third down and scored three points in that stretch. The Gamecocks then converted five straight third downs in a span that included a 95-yard touchdown drive and a 72-yard field goal drive that game it the lead. South Carolina entered the game ninth in the SEC in third down conversions (38 percent). “I feel like (offensive coordinator) Kurt Roper did a good job with good calls on third down, things that we can convert and not just taking shots. I feel like we did a good job,” Turner said.
Welcome to the SEC: The Gamecocks had a season-high seven sacks against Guarantano in the freshman’s first career start. For the second week in a row, Wonnum led South Carolina’s defensive line play with six tackles and two sacks. “He’s gotten more statistical stuff the last two weeks, but he’s been playing really good football for us this year,” Muschamp said. “We’re going to get production out of No. 8. I don’t even blink. I know what kind of production we’re going to get out of him. He’s a really good football player, one of the more intelligent players I have ever been around as far as understanding the game. There are not enough positive things I can say about him.”
Say What?: Muschamp was unhappy with a personal foul called against Stallworth for continuing to play after his helmet came off. The penalty was correctly assessed. “We say it’s about player safety. You know what? If a player decides he wants to stick his face in there without his helmet on, he’s making his own judgment,” Muschamp said. “That’s what Will Muschamp would do. I’d stick my face in the fire every single time and why you get penalized for that is ridiculous. Now, if you’re soft and you don’t want to stick your face in there, it’s your decision, but it ought to be the player’s decision. It is a dumb rule. You said it, I didn’t. I just seconded your opinion.”
Injury issues: Starting tailback Rico Dowdle suffered a broken fibula bone in his left leg Saturday, an injury that is expected to keep him out the rest of the season. It is the same injury suffered earlier this year by wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end K.C. Crosby. “It’s absolutely amazing,” Muschamp said. “I have never been around anything like this before.” Reserve wide receiver Chad Terrell suffered a sprained ankle. Offensive linemen Zack Bailey (ankle) and Cory Helms (ankle) traveled to the game but did not play. Both “definitely” will be ready when South Carolina returns from its bye week to play Vanderbilt on Oct. 28, Muschamp said. Malik Young (ankle) is questionable for the Vanderbilt game. Young did not travel to Knoxville.
Who: Vanderbilt at South Carolina
When: Saturday, Oct. 28 (Time TBA)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium