"We're going to go back to work," Fulmer vowed. "Eventually, we'll get it turned around."
With a tough test at Notre Dame next on the schedule, the Vols had better get it turned around soon.
The sting of Saturday night's defeat was magnified by four factors:
1. South Carolina was a 14-point underdog.
2. The Gamecocks had never won at Neyland Stadium in program history.
3. Fulmer had never lost in 12 previous meetings with Carolina.
4. Tennessee, as usual, contributed significantly to its own demise.
Redshirt freshman Arian Foster, starting at tailback in place of Gerald Riggs (ankle injury), ran for 148 yards but coughed up a second-quarter fumble as he was lunging across the goal line that the Gamecocks recovered for a touchback. A touchdown there would've given Tennessee a 19-7 halftime lead.
After a short punt, the Vols started their second possession of the third quarter at Carolina's 38-yard line. Erik Ainge's first-down bomb slipped off Chris Hannon's fingertips in the end zone, however, and the Vols wound up punting.
Tennessee started its next possession at the Carolina 43-yard line but again wound up punting.
Down 13-12 in the fourth quarter, the Vols drove to a third-and-two at the Gamecock 26-yard line. Reserve fullback David Holbert dropped a flat pass, though, and Tennessee had to settle for a 43-yard James Wilhoit field goal and a 15-13 lead that did not hold up.
"It seems like we can't make a play," Fulmer said. "We had a chance to go up 19-7 and we fumble it into the end zone. We have a post route go right off the fingertips. We have the fullback in the flat for an easy first down and we drop the ball.
"That's been the story of the year."
Foster spearheaded a ground game that accounted for 172 rushing yards. Tennessee's passing game was a no-show, however.
Starting quarterback Rick Clausen completed just 5 of 11 attempts for 34 yards. He threw a first-quarter interception that set up Carolina's first TD, a 19-yard pass from Blake Mitchell to Sidney Rice.
Ainge relieved at this point and provided a first-half spark. He completed just 1 of 7 second-half passes for 4 yards, however, and finished 9 of 21 for 65 yards. Combined, he and Clausen were 14 of 32 for 99 yards.
Meanwhile, the Vol defense did its usual bang-up work for three quarters. End Jason Hall sacked Mitchell for a safety that padded Tennessee's lead to 12-7 late in the first half. Moments later, safety Jonathan Hefney stopped a Carolina drive by intercepting at the Vol nine-yard line and returning the ball 37 yards.
After allowing just 190 yards and 7 points in the first 45 minutes, however, the Vol stop unit surrendered 117 yards and 9 points in the final 15 minutes. Ultimately, if the offense had taken advantage of even half its scoring opportunities, the defense's fourth-quarter fade wouldn't have mattered. But this UT offense seems incapable of making the clutch plays necessary to beat even half-decent opponents.
"It starts with me," Fulmer said. "It runs through the staff, then through the players and everybody associated with Tennessee football."
Counting his days at Florida, Carolina coach Steve Spurrier now stands 8-3 against Fulmer in head-to-head competition. The Vol coach seemed a lot more concerned about his struggling offense than his smirking nemesis, however.
"In my 13 years here, I haven't had a season like this one," Fulmer said, later adding: "It's not all play-calling. It's not all one position. It's just been the dangedest thing. We've got to get it turned around. We've got to get it fixed.
"It's not acceptable."