The Volunteers almost held Alshon Jeffery in check.
For just over three quarters, the Tennessee secondary held the Gamecocks’ big-play receiver to just one catch for 5 yards. But just when it appeared Tennessee might have a shot at its first SEC victory of the season after erasing a 14-point second half deficit, Stephen Garcia found Jeffery in the middle of the field – Jeffery blew through two arm tackles, cut up field and raced to the north end zone showing the ball to the fans as he strolled across the goal line.
“What a play,” South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier said after the game. “He doesn’t look like he’s fast, but no one seems to catch him from behind. That was a huge play.”
The score put South Carolina up 31-24. A Garcia one-yard quarterback sneak put the pesky Vols away for good 8 minutes later as the Gamecocks held onto the 38-24 victory.
In a contest where the end was much more important than the means, South Carolina finds itself in position to possibly lock up the SEC East title next week at home against Arkansas. A Georgia win over Florida would put Carolina in that position.
While it was Jeffery’s 70-yard catch and run that put South Carolina up for good, it was Marcus Lattimore that was the steady guiding force of an otherwise up-and-down offense.
In his first game back since an early second half injury against Kentucky, the freshman running back rushed for a career-high 184 yards on 29 carries. His second-quarter touchdown tied Lattimore with Sidney Rice for the South Carolina freshman record for touchdowns in a season with 13.
“Our big play guys came through,” Spurrier said.
“We didn’t play extremely well,” he said. “We had some really ridiculous, dumb plays today … With the game close, our guys found a way to pull it out.”
Garcia – coming off back-to-back 300-yard passing games – was solid but not spectacular, and came up big when South Carolina needed it most.
Garcia completed 13 of 22 passes for 223 yards while also running in two touchdowns.
“Even though Stephen struggled a little bit, …” Spurrier said, “he did a good job of taking care of the ball, and ran with it well, and snuck it in a couple of times. So Stephen had a decent game he did ok today. Wasn’t his best but he did okay.”
In what ended up being a second half of 14-point swings, South Carolina appeared to be ready to put the Vols away early in the third quarter.
On just the second play of the quarter, SPUR Antonio Allen, who was active all game long, forced a Simms fumble that defensive end Devin Taylor pounced on at the Tennessee 29-yard-line. Six plays later, Garcia powered forward from one yard out with a little help from a Lattimore push to put South Carolina up 17-10
50 seconds later Taylor, who finished the day with two fumble recoveries, intercepted Tyler Bray’s first pass of the game as the lanky defensive end dropped into coverage before racing 24 yards to the end zone untouched.
“It was good,” Spurrier said of the turnovers forced,“ especially Devin Taylor’s pick for a score. And that was sort of a one-hand, hard ball that he got in there. So that was an excellent play by Devin Taylor. And we got a few fumbles.”
But unlike in previous SEC contests, Tennessee would not go away.
After the teams traded punts, South Carolina appeared to force another Tennessee punt with under five minutes left in the third quarter. But it was a fake instead as punter Chad Cunningham scampered through the Gamecocks defense along the right side, before he was eventually shoved out, then hit late by returner Ace Sanders to tack on another 15 yards.
Bray hit Denarius Moore on a 30-yard strike on the very next play to cut the lead in half. Moore went for 228 yards receiving on the day, the second-best mark in school history.
“We had some pretty good plays called,” Spurrier said of the defense. “I’m not concerned [that] they didn’t know what to do. We were playing a bunch of man coverage that sort of got beat, but the deep balls (being converted is) not good. We have to look at that. The deep balls are inexcusable. We gave up a ton of passing yards. We’ll certainly keep working on that."
Bray again found Moore, this time for 62-yards into South Carolina territory early in the fourth quarter, before finding Gerald Jones over the middle for a 17-yard strike to tie the game at 24-24.
That’s when Jeffery’s heroics began and Lattimore salted the game away. Though it was Garcia who scored on Carolina’s final scoring drive, Lattimore was seemingly unstoppable ripping off back-to-back runs of 40 and 19 yards.
“It’s the difference in winning and losing," Spurrier said of Lattimore's return. "How’s that for a difference? If we couldn't run the ball and had to throw all day, we’d have been in trouble today.”
The first half went much like most first halves do for teams playing Tennessee as the Vols went blow-for-blow with the Gamecocks on the way to a 10-10 halftime score.
South Carolina looked to take an early lead on its opening drive, marching all the way to the Tennessee 3-yard-line before self-destructing. Back-to-back five-yard penalties put the Gamecocks on the Tennessee 13 and effectively killed any momentum. Two plays later, Garcia’s pass was intercepted in the left of end zone by Nick Reveiz as two Carolina receivers were clustered in the same area.
On the ensuing drive, another South Carolina untimely penalty erased a Tennessee punt as the Vols went on to take an early 3-0 lead on a Michael Palardy 39-yard field goal. The drive took up 8:52 as Tennessee melted away most of the first-quarter clock.
South Carolina quickly found itself in Tennessee territory again in large part to a Lattimore 17-yard catch-and-run on a screen play and a 15-yard rush as he exploded through a hole on the right side showing no signs of the injury that sidelined him for a game and a half. Tennessee finally corralled the freshman back in the backfield for a three-yard loss putting Carolina behind the sticks. Two plays later, Spencer Lanning kicked a 40-yard field goal to tie the game.
Two plays later, the still-shaky South Carolina secondary, in a sign of things to come, allowed Moore to get loose behind the defense as Simms found him down the left sideline just before getting crushed by an oncoming rusher. Moore cut back across the grain and was eventually dragged down at the South Carolina 6-yard-line.
But the South Carolina defensive stood strong as Cliff Matthews delivered two sacks in three plays, separating Simms from the football on the second one, leading to one of Taylor's fumble recoveries.
South Carolina went back to its workhorse Lattimore as he touched the ball on seven of the next 10 plays eventually powering into the end zone from 1 yard out and giving South Carolina a 10-3 lead.
But Tennessee, as it has all season, continued to battle in the first half. Simms found tight end Luke Stocker in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard score with 3:23 to go in the half before the teams went to the locker room tied at 10.
But South Carolina woke up in the second half, eventually putting Tennessee away in a game that was nothing if not sloppy.
The Gamecocks now find themselves glued to the TV watching the Georgia-Florida game. Regardless of the outcome of that game, Carolina still controls its own destiny. If Florida wins this week, then a Vanderbilt upset win over Florida next week, or a South Carolina victory in the Swamp two weeks from now would give the Gamecocks the division.
“Don’t every take for granted being bowl eligible,” Spurrier said. “That’s a nice accomplishment for this team already with four games left. Now we shoot for the next goal – winning the (SEC) East. We have a chance. Regardless of what happens at Florida, we have a chance.”
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