The post season hopes Tennessee (3-5, 1-4 SEC) once held seem to be slowly fading away.
The Vols dropped what most pundits viewed as a must win game to South Carolina on Saturday, losing 27-24. Now with just four games remaining, three against SEC opponents, the clock is ticking down on Tennessee’s chances at a bowl game.
“The team that made the fewest mistakes won,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “Those guys did a good job of being resilient, and finding a way, and we didn’t.”
Penalties doom upset bid
Tennessee’s offensive line struggled mightily, and not just in pass protection. Five false start penalties set the Vols behind the chains in crucial moments. Four of these false starts occurred when Tennessee had third-and-five or shorter.
The most pivotal false start came on a fourth-and-five on what happened to be Tennessee’s last drive, when Nathan Niehaus moved early. On the ensuing fourth-and-10 play, Guarantano was sacked, all but sealing the game for South Carolina.
Tennessee also had a couple of personal foul calls, including one that took them out of the red-zone in the third quarter, killing the drive’s momentum and forcing a 45-yard a field goal.
“The fans were loud, but it mostly was just us not being in synch,” tight end Eli Wolf said. “Pre-snap penalties, like I said, they kill drives.”
Run game revitalized
The Vols did not exceed 100 yards rushing in their past three contests, going 1-2 in that span. The ground game also failed to score in that streak. In the loss to Alabama, Tennessee managed just 31 yards on 30 carries for a measly 1.03 yards a carry.
Against a South Carolina rush defense that ranked 89th in the nation headed into Saturday’s contest, allowing 179.2 yards per game, the Vols had an opportunity to have one of their better games on the ground this season.
“We executed better today,” offensive lineman Drew Richmond said. “I feel like we blocked better today, I feel like we played more physical today.”
Though Tennessee’s rushers didn’t set the world on fire, in the context of the last few games, they had a great showing against the poor Gamecocks defense. Finishing with 144 yards, it was their best performance against an SEC opponent this year since the Florida game.
Tim Jordan led the way with 62 yards on 12 runs, while Carlin Fils-aime, who recently made the move back to running back after spending the season in Tennessee’s secondary, scored the Vols’ only rushing touchdown.
While Tennessee’s ground game’s stock rose, their ability to stop the opponent’s rushing attack continued to be a weak point for the defense. The Vols allowed 111 total yards rushing to the Gamecocks in the first half.
South Carolina was led through the first two quarters by junior Rico Dowdle, who had 94 yards on the ground on just 10 carries. Altogether, the Gamecocks’ running backs averaged 6.3 yards per rush in the first half.
That hot start would not be cooled by the 20-minute halftime break. Dowdle would once again rear his head in the third quarter, rushing twice for 16 yards and a touchdown on South Carolina’s first drive of the second half.
South Carolina finished with 224 yards on the ground, led by Dowdle’s 140.
The pass defense, as well, faired rather poorly. With the exception of a couple of plays, Tennessee had trouble applying pressure to Gamecock quarterback Jake Bentley, allowing him to carve up the Vols’ secondary for 152 yards and one touchdown.
One of the few defensive highlights was a Shy Tuttle interception off of a tipped pass.
“Someone batted the ball on our side,” Tuttle said. “And I saw it in the air.”
Tennessee will next return home to face the University of Charlotte. The 49ers are 4-4, but their wins have come against opponents with a combined record of 7-24. The Vols will look to bounce back after a 1-3 skid.
“I’ve got to do a better job coaching,” Pruitt said. “I’m going to keep working hard to do that… We’ve got to fix what we messed up and go back to work.”
First kick is set for 4 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.