Tennessee opened the 2020 season in Columbia, South Carolina, by squeaking out a 31-27 win. Josh Palmer caught a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and Tennessee caught a break on special teams in the end, as the Gamecock’s comeback fell just short. The Vols are looking to keep the ball rolling after a huge win at Mizzou, but they can’t overlook a struggling Gamecock team.
Here are three things the Vols’ can learn from their last matchup with South Carolina.
A near collapse
Tennessee led South Carolina by a touchdown at halftime in last season’s opener and began the third quarter with another scoring drive. That two-score lead did not last long.
Shi Smith caught a long touchdown pass from Colin Hill, who later rushed for the tying score. In eight minutes of game time, South Carolina had scored 14 unanswered points to even up the game.
The two teams traded field goals before Palmer’s touchdown put the Vols ahead by 7 with nine minutes to go. South Carolina went down the field on the following drive but stalled out around the 25-yard line and settled for a second field goal. Tennessee could not put the game away with a score but caught a break when South Carolina’s Cam Smith fumbled the punt return, and the Vols recovered.
So what’s the lesson here? The Vols were favored going into the matchup, and despite all the COVID-19 uncertainties that came with the first game of the season, the Vols were the better team. Some mistakes in the passing game, which I’ll touch on later, nearly cost them.
As far as fundamentals go, Tennessee had its best game of the season Saturday at Mizzou. The Vols committed only 2 penalties, their lowest single-game total this year. If the Vols can do the little things right versus South Carolina, then they should have no trouble dispatching an inferior team.
Trouble in the passing game
It’s no secret that Tennessee could not find the right formula at quarterback in 2020 — Jeremy Pruitt rotated between Jarrett Guarantano, Brian Mauer and Harrison Bailey seemingly without a plan.
This was actually one of Guarantano’s better games of the season. He completed 19-of-31 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. But like the 2021 Vols, Guarantano was burned by inaccuracy, particularly on the deep balls.
The most notable overthrows were two that closed the third quarter and opened the fourth quarter. Almost every time South Carolina brought pressure, Guarantano lost his fundamentals and threw the ball away. As a result, Tennessee finished 1-for-11 on third down conversions, a rate which nearly cost them the game.
Hendon Hooker looked really nice last week against Mizzou, completing 79% of his passes for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns. Josh Heupel officially named him the starter Monday, so it will be up to Hooker to continue that consistency in the passing game.
Continue the defensive pressure
The Vols’ defense was a force to be reckoned with in last year’s South Carolina game. Nineteen different players combined for 62 tackles, led by Bryce Thompson and Kenneth George Jr.’s 8 apiece. Henry To’o To’o had a key pick-six, and Deandre Jordan had 2.5 sacks.
Tennessee’s defense in 2021 has not slowed down despite the massive turnover that took place during the offseason. As a result of an aggressive defensive scheme, the Vols’ have forced 7 turnovers in their last three games. They only have 10.0 sacks as a group, but the defense has been suffocating regardless.
Mizzou’s Connor Bazelak and Tyler Badie were held in check for the first time all season as Tennessee trounced over the Tigers. South Carolina has yet to figure out an answer at quarterback, lacks any other real playmakers on offense and has a negative turnover margin as a team. If Tennessee can keep the pressure coming, it can feast all day.