By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee did a lot of things right Saturday night at South Carolina, but not enough to end the Will Muschamp hex.
The Vols were outstanding on third down, efficient in the pass game, decent in the run game, and secured the game’s only turnover.
But UT couldn’t hold on to two double digit leads and South Carolina nailed a 26-yard field goal with 5:52 left to secure a 27-24 win – its third in a row over the Vols and sixth in the last nine meetings.
Muschamp is now 7-0 against the Vols, 3-0 at South Carolina. Each of his wins as a Gamecock coach has been by less than seven points. Three of his wins at Florida were by double digits.
Muschamp might not have bagged this one if not for a critical decision by Vols first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt that backfired.
Rather than attempt a go-ahead 52-yard field goal with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Pruitt went for it on 4th-and-10. The Vols didn’t make it, giving the Gamecocks the ball on the 35 and leading to Parker White’s game-winning kick.
Why not let Brent Cimaglia try a 52-yarder? He’d made 8-of-10 field-attempts this year and banged home a 45-yarder late in the third quarter that might have been good from 60 yards.
The odds of Cimaglia drilling a 52-yarder certainly seemed as good – if not better — than UT converting on fourth-and-10.
UT’s next drive had just as frustrating of an end. Fourth-and-5 turned into fourth-and-10 on UT’s fourth illegal procedure penalty of the game. Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who was an efficient 27 of 39 passing for 207 yards, was sacked near midfield despite having sufficient time to throw.
Game, set, match.
Pruitt could have elected to punt on fourth down with just under two minutes left with three timeouts in his pocket. But he might have felt UT wouldn’t get the ball back since it didn’t force a punt in the second half.
That fourth-down decision certainly made more sense that eschewing a makeable field goal try with the game tied earlier in the fourth quarter.
“South Carolina done a really good job,’’ Pruitt said after his team fell to 3-5 and damaged its bowl aspirations. “They found a way to win. We didn’t.’’
It looked like the Vols might find a way to win after taking leads of 14-3 and 21-9. But UT couldn’t stop SC when it mattered. The Gamecocks scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives bridging the first and second half, and scored on each of its three full possessions in the second half.
One touchdown came after a disputed play in which it appeared the Gamecocks fumbled at the UT 1 and Daniel Bituli recovered.
“The defense didn’t get any stops,’’ Pruitt pointed out. “We’ve got to be able to put the fire out and we never did.’’
Pruitt also noted the mistakes: UT had nine penalties (several at critical moments) to SC’s two. UT also had a couple of key drops, one on about a 30-yard downfield pass to Josh Palmer.
“They whipped us all around,’’ Pruitt said. “I’ve got to do a better job of getting our players ready to play. That’s my fault.’’
The Vols entered the game having been outscored 69-16 in the first quarter but managed their first first-quarter touchdown of the season.
Tennessee’s play-calling was terrific in many respects. Minus its best lineman, Trey Smith, UT mixed things up by throwing on first down, relying on screens and short passes to offset the Gamecocks’ pass rush, running misdirection, getting on the perimeter, and hitting underneath routes to convert several third downs.
In short, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton did a nice job calling plays to help a weakened offensive line.
“The offense played well enough to win,’’ Pruitt said. “At least we started to find a running game (144 yards on 34 runs) and it helped us get balanced.’’
UT attempted a season-high 39 passes (the previous high was 32 against Auburn).
“I think a lot of guys are stinging right now,’’ Pruitt said. “If it doesn’t go the way you want, it should hurt. We’ve got to figure out how come we didn’t win the ball game. We had nine penalties to two. We didn’t tackle well. We had substitution issues.’’
The Vols now need to bounce back against a 4-4 Charlotte team that beat Southern Miss.
“It starts by being invested,’’ Pruitt said, “And I think we are right now.’’