COLUMBIA, S.C. — For everything that Tennessee recovered during its two-week break, the comeback mojo the No. 18-ranked Volunteers lost was the one thing they needed the most Saturday night in South Carolina.
The return of several players from injury wasn’t enough to offset another slow start and continued struggles on offense. This time, the bounce-back fell just short and the Vols lost 24-21.
“Give South Carolina credit, but that was just unacceptable,” said Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who saw his team lose its third straight game. “I thought we were lethargic and lacked energy on the sideline. It’s unacceptable.”
Heading into Saturday, the Volunteers (5-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) had come back in six of their first seven games, managing to erase a total of 86 points worth of deficits. They even had flashbacks of comebacks from the last time they were at Williams-Brice Stadium when quarterback Joshua Dobbs led a furious fourth-quarter rally from 14 points down in a game the Vols would eventually win in overtime.
Offensive inconsistency stymied Tennessee’s chances this time around.
In the first half, the Volunteers stumbled to only 2.6 yards per play and 98 yards. Each time they seemed to gain momentum, they either turned the ball over or were hampered by penalties. Tennessee finished with three turnovers and just 297 yards total offense, including 150 when they were in fast-break mode in the fourth quarter.
“It’s hard to win when you don’t have any explosive plays and we didn’t have any explosive plays in this game,” Jones said.
“It started on the first drive,” added Dobbs, who finished with only 188 total yards. “We started out playing behind the sticks and it’s hard to be successful when it’s third-and-long all game long.”
Tennessee’s ineffectiveness was somewhat stunning given what the Gamecock defense had surrendered its past two games. The Georgia Bulldogs rushed for 326 yards against them three weeks ago and the UMass Minutemen compiled 389 yards and 28 points in Columbia just one week earlier.
Even when Tennessee’s offense found success Saturday, they couldn’t sustain it. Perhaps no other play demonstrated the Vols’ problems more than Dobbs’ collision with freshman running back Carlin Fils-Aime and subsequent fumble at the 11:38 mark of the fourth quarter. Tennessee was at midfield and marching to a potential score when that turnover took place. The Gamecocks scored four plays later to extend their advantage to what turned out to be an insurmountable 10 points.
Two of Dobbs’ three turnovers – an interception in the first half and the fourth-quarter fumble – led directly to South Carolina touchdowns. His interception with 3:42 remaining was one of the Vols’ final misfires.
“We just have to control what we can control,” Dobbs said. “Today, we didn’t come out and play up to our standard of football and it showed."
Jones' career record at Tennessee fell to 26-20. It was his first defeat at the hands of the Gameocks.
“You’ve got to own it,” Jones said. “Some of our leadership needs to step up now.”