UT wins with big finish

Tennessee dominated at the start and the finish, doing just enough in the middle quarters to slip out of Columbia with a mistake-filled 31-24 defeat of the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday evening.

Phillip Fulmer's opportunistic Vols (7-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) outscored Steve Spurrier's boys 14-0 in the first period and 17-7 in the final quarter. The Gamecocks (5-3, 3-3) led by three points entering the last period but couldn't finish the job.

Conversely, Tennessee is proving to be a great finisher. The Vols have won five games in a row by outscoring their foes by a cumulative 85-20 margin in the final quarter.

Basically, Tennessee won Saturday night's game with big plays. A jarring pass breakup by Jonathan Wade on the game's second scrimmage play produced a Marvin Mitchell interception that resulted in a 19-yard touchdown return.

The Vols' second TD could be traced to three big gainers – a 25-yard end-around by Bret Smith, a 16-yard strike from Erik Ainge to Robert Meachem and a 22-yard screen pass to Montario Hardesty.

Leading 14-0 after one quarter, the Vols appeared headed for a resounding victory.

"It looked like we were getting ready to play one of our best ball games," head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show.

The Vols seemed to lose their focus following the early lead, finally regaining it in the final quarter.

Down 17-14, Tennessee scored 17 consecutive points. Ainge completed a 12-yard pass to Smith that produced a 21-17 lead with 13:10 remaining. After a 65-yard punt return by South Carolina native Jonathan Hefney (Rock Hill), Arian Foster lunged across the goal line from five yards out, widening the gap to 28-17 with 10:25 left. James Wilhoit added a 21-yard field goal for a 31-17 lead with 5:09 to play.

There was plenty of suspense remaining, however. Carolina raced 95 yards in nine plays, scoring on a Syvelle Newton keeper that closed the gap to 31-24 with 2:24 to play. Tennessee recovered the ensuing on-sides kick but punted the ball back after three handoffs gained nothing.

Newton launched four passes from deep in his own territory in the final minute. The last one was intercepted by Demetrice Morley, who sat out the first half on a disciplinary suspension due to some recent academic misadventures.

The game was played with more passion than precision. Each team was guilty of several costly errors.

Moments after throwing the interception returned for a TD by Mitchell, Newton threw a pass that was tipped by Ryan Karl and intercepted by Wade in the end zone, costing the Cocks at least three points.

The Vols were just as sloppy at times. They sustained eight penalties, several of which killed promising drives.

The most damaging penalty, however, was an illegal-formation call that nullified a muffed punt recovery at the Carolina 15-yard line. Fulmer conceded that a recovery there "would've made a tremendous difference in the game."

Another damaging penalty was a 15-yard roughing-the-passer call on South Carolina native Robert Ayers (Clio) that fueled a 95-yard Gamecock drive and enabled the hosts to make the final score closer than it should've been.

Tennessee also blew a golden opportunity to score when Robert Meachem lost the ball at Carolina's 27-yard line on a punt return. And a busted assignment in the secondary enabled Carolina' Noah Whiteside to catch a 15-yard TD pass that gave the Gamecocks their short-lived 17-14 lead.

Fulmer called it "kind of a screwy game," adding: "We had a couple of chances to put 'em away and didn't".

Although he praised the "tenacity" his team showed in its fourth-quarter comeback, the head man expressed displeasure with the previous three quarters.

"It's great that we have the wherewithall to come back and fight like that," he said, "but if we keep screwing around somebody's going to bite us in the butt."

Ainge overcame some mid-game struggles to finish 21 of 29 passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Meachem was his favorite target, catching five balls for 106 yards. Smith caught just four passes for 23 yards but two of his grabs produced touchdowns. His first TD came on a five-yard toss that was deflected by two Gamecock defenders.

Tennessee returns to Neyland Stadium this Saturday, hosting LSU at 3:30.

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