The Vols were about to rout the Gamecocks before an ESPN audience on Saturday night, then they were about to lose. Then they won on a field goal by a freshman and a miss by a clutch veteran.
Tennessee didn't just need a miss from the reliable Ryan Succop. It needed a fumble by Mike Davis inside the UT 25 with less than 7 minutes left. It needed a huge kick return by LaMarcus Coker. It needed Jacques McClendon to recover yet another key fumble by Arian Foster. It needed illegal procedure to negate a missed field goal by Lincoln, allowing him to nail a game-tying 48-yarder with five seconds left.
And it needed Succop to miss from 41 yards out in overtime.
No wonder Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said he felt bruised and battered after the game.
``I feel like somebody was beating me with a bat,'' Cutcliffe said as his offense struggled through a miserable second half, only to muster enough yards to set up Lincoln's game-tying kick in the final seconds.
Make no mistake – this wasn't a pretty win for Tennessee.
It was a game the Vols blew, only to have South Carolina blow it back.
Tennessee led 21-0 at halftime, thanks to two Eric Berry turnovers – a fumble recovery and an interception – that set up two touchdowns.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis and center Josh McNeil both acknowledged it was human to relax at the break.
While UT's offense went into hibernation in the second half, Spurrier found a rhythm against the Vols' vulnerable defense. Spurrier chipped away with dink passes, darts over the middle and draws. Next thing you know, a seemingly safe three-touchdown lead against a punchless Carolina team – Vanderbilt held on to a 17-0 lead the week before – was gone.
Fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell (31 of 45 for 290 yards) engineered touchdown drives of 39, 86 and 66 yards as USC rolled up 501 yards – 330 through the air. This was the same Carolina team that had 146 yards at halftime. At one point late in the fourth quarter, the Gamecocks had 339 yards to UT's 70 in the second half.
``I think the whole stadium felt the game slipping away,'' Cutcliffe said.
When Succop nailed a 49-yard field goal with 1:24 left, it appeared Spurrier would get a second straight win in Neyland Stadium. Instead, Coker went 37 yards with the ensuing kick return, and Cutcliffe delivered a stern message to an ineffective Ainge, who, by his own admission, played his worst game of the season. He ended up 26 of 44 for 216 yards.
``I told Erik, this reminds me a pro football,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I watch guys struggle and throw three or four interceptions and it gets down to the final two or three minutes. That's when they know if they're going to keep getting a paycheck. They've got to deliver.
``I said, `You're a good football player and I believe 100 percent you will get this done. You haven't been very good and I haven't been very good. Now we've got to go be good.'''
On an off night, Ainge was good enough to help convert after Coker's kickoff return set UT up at its 47. Ainge had two completions before Foster's fumble wound up in the hands of guard Jacques McClendon for a 19-yard gain. Ainge then found Austin Rogers for 9 yards. He took an ill-advised sack – his first in 289 pass attempts – right after Cutcliffe told him he couldn't take a sack.
But Lincoln made the kick anyway to force overtime.
``He's money,'' Fulmer said of Lincoln.
And when Lincoln hit in overtime and Succop missed, the Vols engaged in a wild celebration on the field. It carried over to the locker room.
``Outstanding,'' Cutcliffe said of the locker room emotion. ``A lot of singing, cheering, happiness. It's always good to win, period, but sometimes it's really good to win that way. I heard the wives hollering and screaming and jumping over there (in the press box). That's all good. There's a lot of stress in this business, so a lot of people deserve that win tonight.''
It meant a lot to some players and coaches who had grown tired of the criticism directed at the team and the coaches.
Secondary coach Larry Slade was happy about the way his secondary forced four turnovers, coming off a loss at Alabama in which John Parker Wilson picked the defensive backs apart.
``Those guys are resilient, tough people, despite all the crap that's been said about them,'' Slade said. ``This group has great character.''
McNeil said he was ``ticked'' about the negative comments directed at Fulmer. ``I'll battle my butt off for Coach Fulmer. He's a great coach. To say he's lost it, that's a load of crap. We fought for him.''
And the Vols fought their way back into the East Division race.
``A lesser team with lesser spirit would have lost the dang game,'' Fulmer said.
``It's been an emotional roller coaster,'' McNeil said. ``After the Alabama game, who'd have thought we'd be in first place in the East.''
Now the trick is to win out.
Even if takes a series of fortunate events.
SECONDARY TAKES ANOTHER HIT
Cornerback Marsalous Johnson, who has started seven games, did not play because a knee injury and Fulmer said after the game Johnson is out for the season.
``Name me another team in America that could lead its conference (or division) after losing five defensive backs,'' Fulmer said, surrounded by a supportive family.
UT also suffered a blow when senior starting tackle Eric Young (torn quad muscle) was lost for the season.
Also, tailback Montario Hardesty didn't play in the second half because of an ankle injury.