When the Tennessee Vols finished their brutal four game SEC stretch two weeks ago, the path to a two-loss season and a possible berth in the SEC championship game was in sight.
However, that all came to a screeching halt on Saturday night.
The Vols (5-3, 2-3) faltered early against the South Carolina Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4) and were never able to recover in a 24-21 defeat at Williams Brice Stadium.
Penalties seemed to be the main concern for the Vols as they committed nine on the game for 87 yards with most of them coming on special teams.
“We had too many penalties on special teams,” Head coach Butch Jones said. “We would do a good job on getting the ball out on returns so those were momentum killers.”
The Vols started off slow once again as South Carolina scored on its opening possession going 73 yards in just nine plays.
The Gamecocks managed 325 total yards on the game with freshman running back Rico Dowdle gaining 128 of those yards on the ground.
For the Vols defense, giving up big plays seem to be the issue.
“We just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Kendall Vickers said.
“A couple of break down in coverage led to big plays,” sophomore Darrin Kirkland Jr. said. “Overall, schematically there weren’t too many big problems that we had. They just hit some big plays at bad times.”
Offensively, the Vols senior quarterback Josh Dobbs was out of rhythm for most of the game. Dobbs finished the game with just 161 yards and threw two interceptions along with his one touchdown pass.
“I felt like I didn’t play up to my standard personally,” Dobbs said. “I am a tough critic on myself so I’ll get it corrected and move forward.
On the ground, the Vols were limited but productive at times.
With Alvin Kamara out already and Jalen Hurd not playing a play in the second half, the run game was dependent on sophomore John Kelly. Kelly took advantage of his opportunity gaining 94 yards on the ground and showing flashes of potential.
“I felt like I took advantage of the opportunities that came my way with the amount of carries and touches that I was able to get,” Kelly said.
However, despite Kelly playing well, another young running back made one of the biggest mistakes of the game.
Freshman Carlin Fils-aime was forced to play in the game and on a pass early in the fourth quarter misread a play, hitting Josh Dobbs arm and causing him to fumble the ball.
“It was a run pass option and I was trying to throw it out on the perimeter, and he came through, he thought he was getting the ball, and he hit me as I threw,” Dobbs said.
On the defensive side, Derek Barnett was the bright spot.
Barnett finished the game with just four tackles, however three of those were sacks. The Vols as a whole finished the game having four different players with sacks.
Freshman Nigel Warrior played significant minutes in the second half due to the mountain of injuries, and while having just two tackles, both proved vital at the time.
Junior Evan Berry provided a huge spark for the Vols late in the third quarter after South Carolina kicked a field goal to go up 17-7. Berry took the kickoff and exploded up the middle of the field to score on a 100-yard kickoff return.
The Vols, however, couldn’t keep the momentum going.
The Vols had a chance at the end but kicker Aaron Medley was well short on a 58-yard field goal to tie the game.
For the Vols moving forward, the goal of going 1-0 each week remains the same.
“We’re just going to keep working,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot more football to play so that’s all we are going to do. We’re just going to keep improving and learn from this loss and keep working.”
The Vols will be back at Neyland stadium next Saturday as they take on Tennessee Tech. That game will begin at 4 pm.