Riley Blevins' thoughts
Mark it on your calendar: The first signature win in the Butch Jones era.
The Vols were so close against Georgia. So, so close.
They finished the job Saturday. Pandemonium ensued.
Nine heart-stopping plays covering 63 yards led to a Michael Palardy 20-yard, game-winning field goal. The team sprinted to the student section. Neyland Stadium shook.
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Sure, there were mistakes. Lots of them. Forget them. All of them. None of that matters now. The game finally went Tennessee's way.
The defense was stellar when it needed to be. Mike Davis, the SEC's leading rusher, scampered for 140-yards – yes. But the Vols gobbled him up when it mattered. Connor Shaw dipped and dived for 96 rushing yards – yes. But the Vols contained him when the game was on the line.
Tennessee played winning football. That's all that matters.
Marquez North, using one hand and a South Carolina cornerback's shoulder pad, added the exclamation mark. The freshman pass-catcher tallied 102 yards in a performance that rivaled any in recent memory. He fought for the football, used his hands and played physical.
When the high of the win fades – whenever that may be – questions may continue to surround Justin Worley. The junior was 19-of-34 for 179 yards and a touchdown and looked hesitant in the pocket at times. But he too answered the call when it mattered.
Forget the missed 46-yard field goal. Forget the scares South Carolina gave Tennessee in the return game. Michael Palardy finally had his moment.
It took every phase of the game to seal the win: the defense forcing a punt, the offense marching down the field and special teams finishing the job. Not sure how you knock any unit.
With the game on the line, they delivered. All of them.
There may be a day down the road where a close win against a ranked opponent isn't celebrated as much as this one. That day is not today. The Vols got the win. Correcting mistakes can wait till film sessions on Monday.
Defense — A +
Offense — A +
Special teams — A +
Danny Parker's thoughts
Usually I finish my IT's Take entry with talk of special teams.
Today, we begin with teams play and major props to Michael Palardy, who's been through quite a bit since leaving Ft. Lauderdale. He made all the difference in the world not just with his game-winning 19-yard field goal but he also bombed eight punts for a net of 40.4. With the exception of a punt return or two, coverage teams were solid.
Mike Davis is a beast. Tennessee fans now know what the rest of the SEC that's seen the Gamecocks knows. The former U.S. Army All-American netted 137 yards on 21 attempts. However, in consistent Steve Spurrier fashion, he didn't use his back enough, even with the passing game struggling. Have to hat tip the Vols defense on slowing down Connor Shaw's arm, but not so much his legs.
The work of Marquez North and the run game were enough for a letter grade apiece for the Tennessee offense, which totaled 325 yards. North accounted for nearly a third off three big catches. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane combined for 132 yards on 36 carries. Justin Worley will never erase any Tyler Bray or Peyton Manning records but he was solid enough against the Gamecocks.
Defense — B-
Offense — B-
Special teams — A
Randy Moore's thoughts
Butch Jones won't have to wait till Year 2 for his "signature win," after all.
Thanks to some quality play on "money down," the Vols banked a 23-21 upset of No. 11 South Carolina Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The Big Orange converted just 5 of 17 third-down opportunities but clicked on the big one. Down 21-20 with around 2:20 remaining, Justin Worley converted a clutch third-and-10 by hitting freshman Marquez North for a spectacular 39-yard gain. Six plays later Michael Palardy nailed a 19-yard field goal on the game's final play.
Tennessee's stop unit rose to the occasion on "money down," as well, limiting the Gamecocks to just 4 third-down conversions in 14 attempts. Much of the credit goes to a much-maligned pass defense that limited South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw to 7 completions in 21 attempts and sacked him four times.
The most encouraging aspect of this game for Vol fans is this: Tennessee finally made a big play in the clutch. The Vols came close in Game 6 only to see Pig Howard fumble the ball as he was lunging for the end zone in overtime. This time Worley made a great throw and North a spectacular catch against ultra-tight coverage. Marlin Lane then ran four times, advancing the ball from the SC 26 to the 2-yard line, giving Palardy a chip shot to win the game.
Ultimately, this is the way Tennessee has to win. The Vols aren't going to hammer anyone with superior talent. They aren't going to dazzle anyone with razor-sharp execution. They aren't going to shut out anyone with their modest level of defensive talent. Basically, Tennessee has to play mistake-free football, win the kicking game and make a clutch play late. That's exactly the formula the Big Orange followed against the Gamecocks.
Worley was efficient (19 of 34, 179 yards, 1 TD, 0 interceptions). Rajion Neal (77 yards) and Lane (55) got some tough yards without fumbling. North (three catches, 102 yards) finally showed why reporters have been raving about him since the start of fall camp.
Defensively, Dan McCullers finally showed up with 6 tackles, including a fourth-quarter hit on Connor Shaw that knocked the Gamecock QB out of the game. Maybe Butch Jones' preseason comment that "Our defense will go as Dan McCullers does" wasn't hyperbole, after all.
Palardy continued his superior play, punting for a 40.6-yard average with six downed inside South Carolina's 20-yard line. He sandwiched field goals of 37 and 19 yards around a 46-yard miss and did another bang-up job of kicking off. The coverage units limited SC to 4.0 yards per punt return and 19.3 yards per kickoff return.
Ultimately, it took all of the above to give Butch Jones his first signature win.
Defense — B+
Offense — B
Special teams — B
Josh Woodward's thoughts
Tennessee has hired themselves a football coach. Butch Jones has his team ready to go today versus a much more talented South Carolina team. This staff can motivate and flat out coach. Tennessee fans should be excited about the future on Rocky Top.
Offensively the Vols got just enough to win, Marquez North is growing into a star, the freshman three catches for 102 yards all three of those catches where spectacular. Justin Worley was serviceable 19-34 with one touchdown, the big thing is he didn't throw any interceptions. Neal and Lane both played well gaining tough yards on an outstanding South Carolina defensive front.
On defense this team played outstanding, to see what was out there last year versus what we are seeing this year is amazing. The linebackers are playing well and Cameron Sutton is playing at a really high level for a corner, his pick was Connor Shaw's first of the year. Danny O'Brien and Marlon Walls are both improving each week.
Special Teams was special today, really good to see a senior Michael Palardy get that game winner, he is having an outstanding season handling all the kicking duties. They did miss some containment on coverage, but with Palardy's kick I can't give them nothing but an A.
Defense — A
Offense — B
Special teams — A