Two weeks ago the Tennessee Volunteers had an injured Georgia Bulldogs team on the ropes, but let it slip through their fingers in overtime.
Coming off the bye week the Vols welcomed another top 25 opponent into Neyland Stadium, and though it seemed like déjà vu late, Tennessee would rally late after surrendering a 17-7 halftime lead to upset the No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2) by a score of 23-21 Saturday afternoon.
The victory is huge for first-year head coach Butch Jones, who is in the midst of rebuilding the Volunteer football program that has been left in shambles since Phillip Fulmer was let go in 2008. It was the first win over a top 25 team for Tennessee since the 2009 season, ironically against South Carolina and also with a first-year head coach, Lane Kiffin.
Like they have all season the Vols took the early lead on a 37-yard field goal by Michael Palardy early in the first quarter. The teams traded possessions and remained scoreless until the first play of the second quarter when Connor Shaw hooked up with Damiere Byrd for a 76 yard strike, putting the Gamecocks on top 7-3. Shaw would exit the game late in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. There is no specified timetable for his return.
For the first time in the game Tennessee didn’t start their drive at midfield like they had the entire first quarter, yet they were finally able to put together a 75-yard drive that was capped off by a six yard touchdown grab by Pig Howard, who fumbled what could have been the game winning run against Georgia two weeks ago. Howard responded well with eight receptions for 33 yards and the afore mentioned touchdown.
The Gamecocks struggled to get into any kind of rhythm in the first half, but came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. They completely dominated the third quarter and took a 21-17 lead into the fourth, with the ball as well. However, after failing to convert over the next three downs they would give the ball back to Tennessee which almost immediately led to 33-yard Palardy field goal to cut South Carolina’s lead down to one.
While the Tennessee defense started making stops, the offense still couldn’t get going. Even after starting a drive at the South Carolina 35 they were stifled and forced to punt from midfield with five minutes to go. It looked like the Gamecocks would keep there SEC championship hopes alive. Enter Marquez North.
Outside of a 48-yard reception that would later set the Vols up for a field goal to cut South Carolina’s lead, the true-freshman North had a relatively quiet game. On Tennessee’s final drive that all would change.
After remaining where they began their drive after the first two plays Justin Worley would find North one more time for what eventually set up the game-winning field goal. North pulled in the 39-yard pass with one hand with a defender on his hip to set his team up to finish what they didn’t two weeks prior. Five plays later Tennessee milked the clock down to three seconds remaining before Palardy booted through the game-winning 19 yard field goal, sending Neyland Stadium into a celebration the venue hasn’t seen quite possibly since the late 90’s.
While the main story will be the Vols upset victory over South Carolina, “the ole ball coach’s” actions toward the end of the game will be heavily scrutinized.
Before punting with 2:55 to go Spurrier, being Spurrier, toyed with the Tennessee defense by sending his offense out on the field twice on fourth-and-two from his own 26, and both times calling, and wasting, timeouts. This left him with one timeout left which was used in an attempt to ice Palardy before his game winning attempt. Had he hung on to the timeouts South Carolina may have received the ball one last time with a chance to win the game themselves. The Tennessee native may spend a solid week kicking himself for the decision to waste those timeouts.
While it’s celebration time in Knoxville for now, it’s back to the road for Tennessee next week. They’ll travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala. to face No. 1 Alabama at 3:30 on CBS.