Photo by University of Tennessee Athletics (@Vol_Football)
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 21 Tennessee (4-1, 1-1) exacted revenge with a 41-20 victory over South Carolina (2-3, 1-2) Saturday. After surrendering six passing touchdowns to Spencer Rattler a season ago, the Vols sacked Rattler six times to secure the victory.
“Our fans were what I expected and had an impact on the football game,” said Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel. “All night long, they were relentless in their effort and energy. We need them the rest of the way when we’re at home.”
After forcing the Gamecocks to stall out near midfield, the Vols scored on a 94-yard drive on their first possession. After several short passes and run plays, Jaylen Wright broke out for 42 yards to the end zone, giving the Vols an early seven-point advantage.
“Our offensive line, they create movement,” Wright said. “That’s the most important thing, moving the line of scrimmage so running backs can seal seams and hit it.”
The Gamecocks were able to get on the board on the following drive. A screen pass to Ahmarrean Brown for 44 yards brought them into Vol territory. After the Vols forced a stop on third down, Mitch Jeter came out and hit a 36-yard field goal, making it 7-3.
After two plays and zero yards, Joe Milton threw his second interception of the season to DQ Smith, and it was returned to Tennessee’s 29-yard line. The Gamecocks capitalized as Rattler kept the ball for six yards and extended while airborne, putting the Gamecocks ahead by three.
“It was early in the game so you still have a lot of quarters to play,” Milton said about the pick. “You kind of just flush it and learn from it, understand what’s going on, understand their coverages. They got me with a little safety rotation. I thought I had an opportunity but got walled, that’s just part of the game.”
The Vols answered the call. Jabari Small opened the next possession with a 22-yard run, and Milton uncorked his first deep pass of the night, a 50-yard rainbow to Squirrel White. Two plays later, Small ran it in the end zone from two yards away, putting the Vols ahead 14-10 to end the first quarter.
An Aaron Beasley sack appeared to force the Gamecocks to punt, but Beamer Ball struck. Punter Kai Kroeger found Xavier Legette for 32 yards down the Vol sideline, taking the Gamecocks across the 50. However, the Gamecocks came up empty handed as Legette was short on fourth down thanks to a Wesley Walker tackle just short of the line to gain.
“I said that this was going to be a line of scrimmage game and challenged them all week long,” Heupel said about the defense. “We had to own it on both sides, and we controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the night. Relentless effort, energy, technique, fundamentals. Our defensive line did a great job all night long, harassed the quarterback to the point where he was throwing out of a well.”
The Vols got rolling early on the following possession as Milton completed a shovel pass to Dylan Sampson that resulted in a 37-yard gain. The Vols would not find the end zone, but Charles Campbell was able to knock through a field goal from 24 yards out, pushing Tennessee’s lead up to seven.
After a Gamecocks punt, the Vols would lose Bru McCoy on the next play. Milton connected with McCoy for 17 yards, but an awkward movement in McCoy’s leg was bad enough for the cart to come on the field immediately.
“Kaleb Webb’s going to have to play at a high level, Chas Nimrod is too,” Heupel said “Dont’e (Thornton) was not available tonight, we should be able to get him back, get him going too.”
The teams exchanged punts, and the Vols would strike one more time before the end of the first half. Rattler overthrew his receiver on a third down deep in Gamecock territory, and it went straight into the hands of Kamal Hadden, who returned the pick six 29 yards. The Vols would carry the 24-10 lead into the locker room.
“That’s a him thing, but as you know we have to get after him,” said defensive end James Pearce about making Rattler uncomfortable.
The Vols scored on their opening drive of the second half. They constructed a methodical drive full of run plays that ended in a 6-yard touchdown pass from Milton to Jacob Warren, bolstering the lead to 21.
The Gamecocks answered on the next play from scrimmage as running back Mario Anderson outran everyone on the play, making it a 31-17 contest.
Neither team scored again in the third quarter, but a punt from the Gamecocks’ end zone gave the Vols the ball in plus territory. The drive started off strong, but after the start of the fourth quarter whatever energy the Vols had on the drive withered away. The Vols did come away with points as Charles Campbell hit a 33-yard field goal to make it 34-17.
The next Gamecock drive stalled out just past midfield, but they were able to score some points.
Mitch Jeter hit a field goal from 40 yards away, tightening the gap back to 14 points.
The Vols closed the book on the Gamecocks on the next drive. The drive was highlighted by completions to Ramel Keyton, Chas Nimrod, and Jacob Warren that put the Vols into the red zone. Dylan Sampson finished the drive with a 6-yard rush touchdown, pushing the score to 41-20.
Tennessee has its bye week next weekend. It will take the field next against Texas A&M in Neyland Stadium Oct. 14. A kickoff time has yet to be announced.
“We’re a football team that needs to get healthy,” Heupel said about the bye. “For us right now, I would say it’s coming at the right time.”