On Oct. 27, 2018, a Tennessee team with very little room for error as far their postseason aspirations went, watched a late lead against South Carolina turn into a gut-wrenching 27-24 loss.
Nearly a year to the day, Tennessee entered their contest with the Gamecocks in a similar position but ended it with a very different result.
Despite a first half marred by penalties and injuries, the Vols (3-5, 2-3 SEC) left little doubt in the second half, dominating South Carolina (3-5, 2-4 SEC) in a 41-21 rout in front of an announced crowd of 83,397 at Neyland Stadium.
With the win, Tennessee’s first postseason berth since 2016 is in sight, and they got there behind strong backup quarterback play, an even stronger defense and opportunistic special teams.
Here are the takeaways from the Vols first win over the Gamecocks in four seasons:
The QB experiment
Following the loss to Alabama, the question surrounding the Tennessee program all week was who would line up at quarterback with true freshman Brian Maurer out with a concussion.
The answer came on the Vols’ first offensive possession with senior wide receiver Jauan Jennings taking the first snap.
When asked about the decision to start Jennings, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was frank.
“I decided (to start Jennings)” Pruitt said, “It was just the way I wanted to do it.”
The very next play, redshirt freshman JT Shrout came into the game. On the Vols’ next drive, redshirt Jarrett Guarantano got into the mix.
Despite slow starts, both quarterbacks had solid showings, combining for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns. Their most important stat however was zero turnovers.
“To me it tells you what a really good job our offensive staff does getting them prepared,” Pruitt said. “I’d like to start with (Guarantano), just with how he came in, how he responded. He came out here tonight did a fantastic job.
“When he went down, JT (Shrout) came right back in and made a couple of big throws.”
Shrout saw his first significant action in an SEC game after playing the last couple of minutes against Alabama last week.
He was ready.
“All three of the (quarterbacks) do a great job of preparing like we’re going to come into the game,” Shrout said. “I just prepare everyday throughout practice. We always do a great job of preparing to be the guy week in and week out.”
For Guarantano, there was little more to prove.
After fumbling the ball at the goal line late in the fourth quarter versus Alabama, Guarantano came into the South Carolina game hoping to help his team get a much-needed win.
His two touchdown passes went a long way in helping achieve that.
“I could have played a lot better,” Guarantano said. “The team won and that’s really all I am worried about. I definitely have a lot to improve on.”
Jennings, receivers have historic day
Although he lined up at quarterback to start the game, Jauan Jennings ended up having a career night at wide receiver.
Jennings had 174 yards receiving along with two touchdowns.
On both scores, Jennings shredded tacklers on his way to the endzone.
The performance was the first time a Tennessee wide receiver recorded 150-plus yards and two touchdowns in a conference game in 15 seasons.
“Jauan (Jennings) has passion,” Pruitt said. “Jauan has passion for the game, he has passion for his teammates, he has passion for the University of Tennessee. He shows it every single day.
“What you see on Saturday is what we see on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday Friday. He’s consistent in the way he prepares.”
Marquez Callaway racked up more than 100 yards and a touchdown himself, making it the second time this season that two Tennessee receivers had more than 100 yards in a single game.
Taylor heads up defense’s strong performance
On defense, the Vols were lead by senior linebacker Darrell Taylor, who put together perhaps his best performance of the season.
Taylor had two sacks, two tackles for loss and two pass break ups.
For him, beating South Carolina meant something to the defense, something they talked about in team meetings on Friday.
“In our Friday meeting for the defensive side our coaches made us talk about what this game meant to us,” Taylor said. “It meant a lot to us. It’s been a close game that comes down to the last few possessions. We did everything we were supposed to do to make sure we could win this game.”
The indication early was the defense was going to be in for a long day after South Carolina quarterback Ryan Hilinski connected with Shi Smith for a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the game.
In the past, that might have taken the wind out of the defense’s sails early, but according to Taylor, the unit gathered on the sideline to regroup.
“We decided we’ve got three more quarters and the first play of the game isn’t going to define us,” Taylor said. “It was only one touchdown. We just kept our poise and kept telling each other we were good.”
Special Teams take advantage
Tennessee scored twice off of special teams in the win.
Callaway had his third punt return for a touchdown in his career with a 65-yard return in the second quarter to give the Vols a 10-7 lead.
Later in the game, senior linebacker Daniel Bituli rushed in on a South Carolina punt and blocked it before falling on the ball in the endzone to all but put the game out of reach, 41-21.
Bowl berth real possibility
With the win, the outlook for a bowl game looks a little brighter for Tennessee.
The Vols need three more wins to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016, with games against UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbit still remaining.
Beating South Carolina doesn’t force Tennessee to have to win out to make a bowl.
The Vols play host to Alabama-Birmingham (7-1) on Nov. 2 at Neyland Stadium.
The game marks the first match up between Tennessee and UAB since 2010.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. and will air on the SEC Network.