Steve Spurrier said several days before the game he believed that some teams and some coaches have the others' number. That would have been driven home had Spurrier beaten Fulmer a second straight year with inferior talent. Fulmer detractors would have had a field day.
Instead, Phillip Fulmer not only dodged the critics, he kept the Vols in the Bowl Championship Series bowl hunt with an outside shot of winning the East Division. Tennessee (7-1, 3-1 SEC) must win out and Florida must lose to Vanderbilt or South Carolina. That's unlikely, but at least UT is still in the chase entering November.
That's a far cry from a year ago, when the only drama in November was whether Tennessee would finish ahead of Vanderbilt.
Tennessee's hard-fought road win took a familiar turn. The Vols trailed after three quarters, but outscored the Gamecocks 17-7 in the fourth period. In the last five games, UT has outscored opponents 85-20 in the final 15 minutes.
``I'd like to play the first three quarters like the last one,'' said Fulmer, whose 134 career wins as an SEC coach are one more than Spurrier's total. ``It's great any time you go on the road in the SEC and get a win, particularly here. We had a chance to put them away a couple of times and didn't Credit them.''
And credit Tennessee for finding a way to win again despite two major concerns – an inability to run and an inability to stop the run. Usually, that's a deadly combination for an SEC team. For Tennessee, it's become an all-too-frequent hurdle.
Tennessee, which entered the game 10th in the SEC in rushing with 119.6 yards per game, managed just 71 yards on 13 carries. Arian Foster had 28 yards on 12 carries. Montario Hardesty had 25 on eight runs. That's 53 yards on 20 carries by the running backs – 2.7 yards per attempt.
If you subtract receiver Bret Smith's 25-yard reverse, UT would have had 46 rushing yards.
The run defense wasn't much better than the run offense. South Carolina scissored through the Vols for 165 yards on 35 carries. Quarterback Syvelle Newton had 85 yards on 14 attempts, doing most of his damage with scrambles from the pocket. Cory Boyd had 69 yards on 17 attempts.
When an opponent more than doubles your run total (165-71), you're in trouble. But this Tennessee team has a way of wiggling out of trouble. With the offense not quite in sync for a second consecutive game, the Vols scored on an interception return and converted a 65-yard punt return into a 5-yard touchdown.
Tennessee had two impressive touchdown drives – 80 yards on 10 plays on the first series of the game and 79 yards on 13 plays after the Gamecocks took a 17-14 lead late in the third quarter. The 79-yard drive was clutch, considering South Carolina had the momentum and the crowd.
The big play: A 21-yard pass from Erik Ainge (21 of 29 for 254 yards) to Jayson Swain on third-and-15 at the USC 33. Swain wasn't supposed to play because of a high ankle sprain, but the senior gutted it out for a second week in a row. He finished with three catches for 45 yards.
``Jayson has been a tremendous leader for us going back to January,'' Fulmer said. ``He didn't practice all week and I didn't think there was any way he could play. He's a warrior.''
So is Newton, the Gamecocks' athletic quarterback. He racked up 315 total yards – 10 fewer than UT's team. Newton had 232 passing yards on 16 of 29 throws. He was intercepted three times, two on deflections. The Vols did a poor job of containing Newton, raising questions as to whether UT should have used a spy to keep Newton at bay as he consistently popped out of the pocket for clutch gains.
``He did a great job,'' UT linebacker Marvin Mitchell said of Newton. ``My hat's off to the South Carolina team.''
Mitchell scored his second touchdown of the season, but the first that counted. His interception return against Florida was nullified by a penalty.
``When I got the touchdown,'' Mitchell said of the game's second play, ``I looked around to make sure there were no flags.''
There weren't. And UT's quick 7-0 lead silenced the crowd. The Vols went ahead 14-0 after Jonathan Wade intercepted a tipped Newton pass in the end zone, stopping a USC march and setting in motion's UT's first scoring drive.
Wade had a big game, deflecting the ball Mitchell intercepted and getting a pick himself. He helped hold Sidney Rice to three catches for 52 yards. Rice had eight catches for 112 yards and two touchdowns against the Vols last season. Wade did get away with a late pass interference, but he still played well.
``I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time,'' Wade said of his tip that ended up in Mitchell's hands. ``I had no clue the ball was intercepted until I saw Marvin Mitchell running to the end zone.''
Regarding his defense on Rice, Wade said: ``I knew it'd be a tough challenge. I was just playing ball when the lights came on.''
Tennessee played well enough when the lights came on to maintain its top-10 national ranking. But if the Vols don't improve their run game and run defense, they can kiss the top 10 good bye.
NOTES: Safety Demetrice Morley didn't start for academic reasons. ``I wasn't going to class,'' Morley said. ``He (Fulmer) really proved a point and I thank him for that.'' Antonio Wardlow started in Morley's place. … UT's first-team offense scored a touchdown on 24 of 52 possessions in the first six games. In the last two, they've scored three of 22, two of nine against Carolina. … ESPN's Lee Corso, who picked the Vols to win and antagonized Gamecocks fans by picking UT and saying Southern Cal is the ``real USC,'' was heard whistling Rocky Top after the game. … UT has 11 interceptions this season, 10 by defensive backs. … South Carolina has lost 10 in a row to a top-10 team. … UT entered the game as the SEC's least penalized team but had eight against the Gamecocks, two each on offensive linemen Arron Sears and David Ligon.