USC drops heartbreaking OT contest to Vols

The first half belonged to Tennessee. The second half belonged to Carolina. Four nights before Halloween, USC came back from the dead and a 21-0 deficit and with 1:24 left took the lead. When it counted most, the Vols made a field goal in overtime and USC missed one. In a game that will haunt Gamecock fans, the 27-24 loss all but removed USC from SEC title contention this season.

The South Carolina post-game interview room was as somber as a funeral home. No one wanted to talk to the media, not the coaches, not the players. The combination of last week's upset loss to last place Vanderbilt and this night's loss to Tennessee meant in all likelihood that the Gamecocks were no longer contenders for an SEC championship, the team's major goal of the season. In his shortest post-game interview in his two and ¾ seasons at USC, Spurrier said that "we played just good enough to lose. We played just good enough to get our butts beat."

Two minutes after he sat down, he was gone.

All but lost in the post-game gloom of the crushing defeat was the fact that the USC defense played an inspired game and effectively shut down a potent offense for most of the game, and the much aligned offensive line played its best half of football this season in the second half, allowing the Carolina offense to rack up 501 yards in total offense, and revive an all but dead passing attack. Blake Mitchell replaced the team's starting quarterback much like he did in the second half of the Arkansas loss last season, and led his team on four effective scoring drives.

Tennessee came into the game #2 in the SEC in passing yards per game and #3 for passing efficiency. The USC defense limited UT to 97 yards total offense in the second half. Vol quarterback Erik Ainge had completed 292 pass attempts without being sacked before Casper Brinkley sacked him in the fourth quarter as the Vols were driving for the winning touchdown, forcing UT to kick a field goal and sending the game into overtime.

On the other hand, Tennessee was only allowing 102.3 yards rushing per game by opponents at home, but USC rushed for 173 yards, 160 of them by Cory Boyd. Their passing defense was only allowing 212.3 yards per game at home, but again they were scorched by the Gamecocks, allowing 330 yards through the air. The Gamecocks scored 24 unanswered points in the second half before UT it a field goal at the end of the game to tie the game and send it into overtime.

"It's disappointing. We were down; we fought back and gave ourselves a chance." Mitchell said. "It just came up a little short. The offense in the second half was there. It was just a matter of hitting things and taking what they gave us. I think we did a decent job of that. We ran the ball pretty well and the offensive line did a pretty good job."

The stellar play by the Carolina defense was despite being put repeatedly in harm's way by the USC offense and special teams.

The first half of the game was all tricks and no treats for the Gamecocks, as USC turnovers and penalties gave the ball to the Volunteers, who took advantage of the opportunities to take a 21-0 lead.

Things started off negative on the opening kickoff for South Carolina, when the kick resulted in a penalty when Ryan Succop kicked it out of bounds, giving the Vols the ball on their own 35. The USC defense played valiantly for most of the first half, trying to keep their team in the game despite offensive turnovers and penalties. The Carolina D held the Volunteers to three and out on their first possession. A block in the back penalty resulted in USC starting deep, from their own 12 yard line. But the Carolina offense ran the ball, and aided by a personal foul penalty against Tennessee drove down to the Vol 34, before stalling, when a Vol sack forced a USC punt to the UT ten yard line, and the Gamecocks had for the moment successfully reversed the field position.

USC again held the Vol offense to three and out, but a roughing the kicker penalty by Cliff Matthews gave the ball right back to Tennessee, instead of taking over on their own 45. In Spurrier-like fashion, UT struck quickly after the reversal of fortune, completing a 22 yard pass to the Carolina 49. The Carolina defense stiffened again, forcing another UT punt.

Instead of his own 45, Captain Munnerlyn then made a fair catch at his own seven, and field position had reversed again.

Cory Boyd broke loose for a 21 yard gain to the 34, and the Gamecocks seemed to be on the move again when Freddie Brown fumbled the ball and Tennessee returned it to the Carolina five yard line. A personal foul penalty against Chris Smelley moved the ball to the USC 2 yard line. It took the Vols three tries, but they scored a touchdown to take the early lead 7-0.

A 23 yard return on the kickoff by Patrick Dimarco to the 38 gave USC good starting field position on the next drive Smelley was sacked for a seven yard loss. End of first quarter. Eric Berry intercepted a Chris Smelley pass on the first play of the second quarter and returned it to the USC 45. UT moved the ball down to the USC 36, and the Gamecocks appeared to have stopped the Vols on 4th and 1, when a late flag on Munnerlyn gave the Vols a first down on the 29 and new life. Brandon Isaac received an injury to his head on the next play, and did not return to the game.

Ainge first down passes to the 18 and six yard lines keyed the Vols' second scoring drive, which was capped by a three yard run by Montario Hardesty.

Blake Mitchell returned as quarterback on the next drive, and he moved the team for a first down, only to be moved back 15 yards to the 30 yard line on a personal foul against Garrett Anderson. The drive stalled, and the Gamecocks were again forced to punt. Mitchell stayed in at quarterback the rest of the way. Spurrier didn't indicate after the game who would start at quarterback next week against Arkansas, but Mitchell made a strong case for a replay of his late season resurgence from last season.

The USC defense was clearly tiring when they gave up a 37 yard pass play to the Carolina 21, and then Tennessee drove at will for their third touchdown, this one capped by a five yard pass to Josh Briscoe.

After USC was unable to reach the red zone and forced to punt again, UT took over on their own seven yard line, and again drove down the field on a visibly tired USC defense to the Carolina 34 yard line, where with nine seconds left Daniel Lincoln attempted a 51 yard field goal.

It was no good, and the momentum shifted to South Carolina just before halftime.

"The first half, we weren't very good," Spurrier said. "We roughed the kicker, had stupid, careless penalties and a fumble. We weren't real smart and weren't real good at times. We had a pretty good second half but it didn't work."

After both teams were held by the opposing D on their first respective drives of the second half, Mitchell began the Carolina comeback by driving the team down the field, finishing off the drive himself with a one yard quarterback sneak into the end zone, and the Carolina faithful dared to hope again, as the Vol lead was cut to 21-7.

The USC defense continued to star on this night, causing a six yard loss for UT on the first play of the next drive, and then a chop block penalty backed the Vols up 15 yards, giving them a second and 31. They got 26 yards back but not enough for first down, and Colquitt punted to the Carolina 14.

Mitchell started the next drive with a 20 yard pass to Kenny McKinley. Boyd then bulled his eight yards before Mitchell hit McKinley again for nine more yards and a first down at the UT 48. Jared Cook took a ball and after almost falling stumbled ahead for an extra ten yards on a 19 yard play. Cory Boyd then burst free for a 29 yard touchdown run, and all of a sudden it was a ballgame again, 21-14.

Tennessee wasn't ready to throw in the towel, and Erik Ainge showed why he is one of the most respected quarterbacks in the country, driving the Vols deep into Gamecock territory as the third quarter ended.

But the defense stopped the drive on downs after UT could not manage another first down jsut out of field goal range, and the Gamecock offense was ready. Dion Lecorn hauled in a 20 yard pass at the Tennessee 35. Two 12 yard plays took the ball down to the Tennessee seven, and Blake Mitchell tied it up with a pass to a wide open Kenny McKinley.

Tennessee's offense was unable to respond, and USC took a fair catch at their own 18. The Tennessee crowd began to roar. Cory Boyd who sat out the previous drive after limping off the field after his touchdown catch suffering from cramps, returned to the game. After one first down, Boyd took off for 15 yards and another Carolina first down at the USC 48. Carolina continued to march down the field on a nice balance of passing and running plays to the UT 23.

And then Mike Davis fumbled, and UT took over at the 17 yard line. Rocky Top was heard for the first time on the second half. The Carolina defense reacted like the Tennessee fight song was a clarion call for them to respond to, and Captain Munnerlyn intercepted the Vol ball at the 30 yard line, and Mitchell and company went to work. In one of the key drives of the game, a holding penalty moved USC back to the 40 yard line, a delay of game penalty gave Carolina a 3rd and 22 at the 42, and then Mitchell was intercepted by Ryan Karl at the Tennessee 17. With the USC defense holding the Volunteer offense in check, USC had their opportunities to put the Vols away in the fourth quarter, but failed to close the deal. The Gamecocks drove into Vol territory as the clock ticked down, and Ryan Succop nailed a 49 yard field goal to give Carolina the lead with 1:54 left, the same length field goal Josh Brown hit two years ago to give Carolina the win. Succop said after the game he thought they had won it at that point.

The Vols tried twice late in the game to give the ball back to the Gamecocks on fumbles, but USC could not come up with the ball, and after the Vols came up with the ball on the USC 31 with 1:24 left, Daniel Lincoln hit a 48 yard field goal for Tennessee to tie the game.

The Vols got the ball first in overtime, and scored on a 48 yard field goal by Lincoln.

Cramping by USC players was a factor in the game, and Kenny McKinley could not come down with the ball in the end zone as he grimaced in pain, and had to be carried off the field.

Succop, who is normally automatic from 40 yards or closer, hooked the ball to the right on his field goal attempt, and the Vol nation went wild. It was over.

"On the first (go-ahead) kick, the team did a great job and put us in position," Succop said. "The second kick, we have to thank God for the position that I was in. It was just unfortunate that I couldn't make it. It just came off my foot a little to the right. Everybody is pretty upset but we can't hang our heads for here. We have to get going and get ready for Monday's practice."

"It was a good game for television, I guess, but it wasn't a very good game for us," Spurrier said. "We had our chances but we weren't good enough to win the game tonight. You have to give Tennessee credit for kicking the field goal in overtime and we couldn't make one."

McKinley tied a Carolina single game record with 14 receptions on the game, netting 151 yards receiving and one touchdown. Cory Boyd ran for a career-high 160 yards and caught six passes for another 25 yards, also making one touchdown.

Jared Cook made five catches for 55 yards, and Freddie Brown caught four passes for 41 yards. The USC offensive line finally gelled in the second half, and youngsters Heath Batchelor and Seaver Brown were a major part of USC outgaining Tennessee, 501-317 in total yardage, including 355-112 in the second half, and the offense generated 31 first downs to Tennessee's 16.

The game had an announced attendance 105,962, but there were thousands of tickets being offered for sale outside the game before kickoff, a large percentage of them getting no takers.

USC will take on the Arkansas Razorbacks next Saturday in Fayetteville Arkansas at 8 pm Eastern. The game will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2.

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