"There were a lot of good things in the game today," Vol head coach Derek Dooley said. "But when you spit the ball out four times – three of them in your own territory and one of them for a score, and you have the sacks that we had and give up three huge plays on the last two drives – you're not going to win the game."
Tennessee converted on 7 of 14 third-down tries and gained 404 yards of total offense. The Vols lost three fumbles, however, threw a pick-six interception and surrendered six sacks.
The Big Orange appeared to blow the game at the start of the third quarter. The Gamecocks parlayed turnovers by Vol quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray into two touchdowns in the first 3:20 of the second half, turning a 10-10 halftime tie into a 24-10 lead.
Simms started the slide by coughing up his second fumble of the game on Tennessee's second play of the third quarter. South Carolina recovered at the Vol 27-yard line and scored six plays later on a sneak by quarterback Stephen Garcia.
Freshman Bray took over at QB for Tennessee and went the rest of the way. His start couldn't have been shakier, however. His first pass attempt – a quick out – was picked off by Devin Taylor and returned 24 yards for a touchdown that bumped Carolina's lead to 24-10 with less than four minutes gone in the quarter.
"It's impossible to have a worse start to the third quarter," Dooley said. "It was ridiculous."
At this point, Tennessee fans had to be thinking, "Uh-oh. Here we go again." Instead of collapsing, however, the Vols rallied to tie the score.
Dooley gambled on Tennessee's ensuing possession and won. Chad Cunningham bolted 25 yards on a fourth-and-10 fake punt, then had 15 more yards tacked on for a late hit out of bounds on Ace Sanders. Bray found Denarius Moore for a 30-yard touchdown on the very next play, closing the gap to 24-17.
Tennessee's defense got its first three-and-out of the game at this point but Eric Gordon muffed the Carolina punt and the Cocks recovered at the Vol 17-yard line. Vol linebacker Herman Lathers sacked Garcia on third down, however, and Spencer Lanning missed on a 41-yard field goal try.
Tennessee exploited the good fortune, going 77 yards in five plays to tie the score at 24. The big play was a 62-yard pass from Bray to Denarius Moore. A 17-yard strike to Gerald Jones produced the score.
"I was proud of the team for the fight they showed and the resolve they showed," Dooley said.
The 24-all deadlock lasted just one minute, however. On the second play of SC's ensuing possession Stephen Garcia hit Alshon Jeffery with a simple curl route over the middle and the 6-4, 237-pounder outran the pursuit to complete a 70-yard touchdown play that produced a 31-24 Gamecock lead.
"It was terrible," Dooley said of Tennessee's failure to react on the play. "They throw a curl route and go 70 yards. It was ridiculous. We're playing cover-2, and nobody can catch the guy."
Carolina added an insurance TD on its next possession, going 92 yards in eight plays. Garcia hit Jeffery for 12 yards on third-and-five at the SC 13-yard line, then Lattimore sandwiched gains of 40 and 19 yards around a late-hit penalty on Tennessee's Jacques Smith, advancing the ball to the 1-yard line. Garcia scored on a sneak and Lanning booted the PAT to secure the final margin.
South Carolina appeared unstoppable at the game's start. A 26-yard pass from Garcia to fullback Patrick DiMarco on the second play and a 22-yard strike to Tori Gurley on the sixth play gave the Gamecocks a first-and-goal at the Vol 9-yard line. Carolina blew the opportunity, however, thanks to a motion penalty, a false start and a poor throw by Garcia that was intercepted in the end zone by Vol linebacker Nick Reveiz.
The Gamecocks made another huge mistake moments later. An offsides penalty on a Vol punt sustained a drive that ended with a 39-yard Michael Palardy field goal and a 3-0 Tennessee lead. The big play on the drive was a 33-yard strike from Simms to Denarius Moore on third-and-two at the SC 46-yard line.
Carolina wasted no time tying the score. A 17-yard screen to Lattimore sparked a 10-play drive capped by a 40-yard Spencer Lanning field goal with 13:33 left to halftime.
A 64-yard pass from Simms to Moore gave Tennessee a first-and-goal at the South Carolina 6-yard line but the threat was snuffed by Gamecock end Cliff Matthews. He recorded two sacks – the second causing a fumble that teammate Devin Taylor recovered at the 20-yard line.
Spurred by the turn of events, Carolina drove 75 yards in 10 plays. Lattimore made a 34-yard run early in the march and capped it with a one-yard touchdown plunge as the Cocks went up 10-3 with 6:40 left to intermission.
Tennessee showed some resilience at this point, however, rolling 70 yards in nine plays to tie the score. Freshman Da'Rick Rogers had a 16-yard gain on an end-around and a 15-yard run on a double-reverse to spark the drive. A 12-yard pass from Simms to tight end Luke Stocker produced the TD and a 10-10 halftime deadlock.
Tennessee managed just 92 rushing yards on 37 carries but riddled a Carolina pass defense that ranks dead last in the SEC. Bray finished 9 of 15 for 159 yards, Simms 10 of 13 for 153.
With a full-blown quarterback controversy looming, Dooley declined comment except to say "I don't want to get into the quarterback thing yet. He (Bray) did some good things."
Vol wideout Denarius Moore had a career game, catching six balls for a whopping 228 yards. That second number fell just 28 yards shy of Kelley Washington's 256-yard school record set in 2002 vs. LSU.
"Denarius was phenomenal," Dooley said.
Carolina's Garcia completed 13 of 22 for 223 yards. Jeffery caught just three passes but parlayed them into 87 yards. Lattimore was a workhorse, adding 184 yards on 29 rushes.
Ultimately, South Carolina (6-2 overall, 4-2 SEC) was erratic but opportunistic. Tennessee (2-6, 0-5) was competitive but inefficient.
"At the end of the day," Dooley surmised, "mistakes were the difference."
That comment had a familiar ring to it. This really was déjà vu all over again.