“Great day to be a Vol” were the initial words of first-year Head Coach Butch Jones in the Press Room following Tennessee’s 23-21 upset of 9th ranked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium. Wins like these used to be commonplace, but Tennessee had lost 19 straight to ranked opponents having not beaten one since South Carolina in 2009.
One must go back two years before that to find the last victory over a team ranked as highly as the Gamecocks. It too was over Carolina, at Neyland. It is always special for the Big Orange Nation to beat Steve Spurrier, especially since it rarely happened when he was at Florida. The grudge has been kept by most, making this win all the sweeter.
The season’s first half had been largely non-descript. The Volunteers shook things up on Saturday on a wild day in the SEC that saw five upsets out of six games. The only chalk game was #1 Alabama pounding Arkansas 52-0 for the second consecutive year. The Tide awaits the Vols this Saturday, but all in orange continue to glow from the amazing team effort that was 23-21.
This was a game that demanded patience for Tennessee—the patience to stick to a game plan that was their only chance for victory. Be strong in the run game, both in moving the chains yourself and in keeping South Carolina from doing the same. The team who had to place the burden on their quarterback in the passing game to win would be the team who struggled. Tennessee’s strength is the offensive line. Saturday they made it pay.
The Volunteers averaged only 3.6 yards per carry, but they stayed with it, racking up a five-minute advantage in time of possession and wearing down the Gamecocks. The combination of Rajon Neal and Marlin Lane combined for 36 carries for 132 yards. Quarterback Justin Worley was hit-and-miss early, but his hand grew steadier as the afternoon wore on completing 19-of-34, eight to Alton Howard for 33 yards. These short ball-control passes to the sophomore affectionately known as ‘Pig’ proved critical. His six-yard TD put UT ahead 10-7 in the second quarter.
Rajon Neal put the Volunteers ahead 17-7 with a five-yard run with 6:11 remaining in the first half. The Gamecocks then imposed their will, mostly behind the running of Mike Davis who rushed for 137 yards on the day, including a 21-yarder in the third quarter drawing Carolina within 17-14. When QB Connor Shaw went in from the ‘one,’ South Carolina led 21-17 with 2:50 left in the third. Tennessee teams of recent vintage would have wilted. This new team with the new coach (with an attitude to match) did not allow it.
Worley, called on to make a play rather than just manage the game, found Marquez North for 48 yards down to the Carolina 16 setting up a field goal: 21-20 Carolina. Then the maligned Tennessee defense stood tall, forcing three consecutive three-and-outs, allowing only 12 yards and flipping the field. By the time the Vols got the ball at the 2:48 mark, they were at their own 35. Again Worley made a play, again finding North who made a spectacular one-handed catch for 39 yards. Marlon Lane then took over—four straight carries for 24 yards against the fatigued Gamecocks front.
Michael Palardy nailed the extra-point sized field goal to ignite euphoria on Rocky Top not felt in years. Next is a trip to #1 Alabama, a trip that will be made with much more belief than before.