Tennessee tight ends Mychal Rivera (81) and Luke Stocker (88) celebrate Stocker's touchdown reception during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee at Williams Brice Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010, in Columbia, SC. (AP Photo/Rich Glickstein)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A tied halftime score eroded into a two-touchdown deficit in 50 seconds Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium, and the University of Tennessee football team seemed destined for another devastating dive.
No. 17 South Carolina was on the verge of doing what top-ranked Oregon and sixth-ranked Alabama did to the Volunteers in second halves earlier this season.
“I had that feeling like, ‘Man, not again,’” UT senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz said.
“Yep, I thought about it,” said UT junior defensive lineman Malik Jackson.
“Uh-huh. Been there, done that,” added UT senior wide receiver Gerald Jones.
Somewhat stunningly, the Vols recovered Saturday. But they couldn’t do it twice.
UT rallied to tie the score early in the fourth quarter before ultimately falling, 38-24, before a less-than-capacity crowd of 79,336.
South Carolina sophomore wide receiver Alshon Jeffery caught a 70-yard touchdown pass with 12 minutes, 17 seconds left — exactly 60 seconds after the Vols tied the score. Then several big runs from freshman tailback star Marcus Lattimore set up the final score, junior quarterback Stephen Garcia’s 1-yard sneak with 3:28 left.
The Vols lost three fumbles, two in their own territory and one after they’d driven inside South Carolina’s 20-yard line. They entered Saturday’s game as the Southeastern Conference’s least-penalized team, and they were flagged for three personal fouls against the Gamecocks.
Yet they had a legitimate chance in the fourth quarter. Several chances, actually. They just couldn’t finish.
“It’s impossible to have a worse start in the third quarter. It was ridiculous,” coach Derek Dooley said. “But to the team’s credit, they showed a little resolve, and we tied the score up. And then we just had some ... it was terrible.
“They throw a curl route and go 70 yards. It’s ridiculous.”
Jeffery caught what looked like a short gain over the middle of the field, near midfield, but he maneuvered to the sideline before galloping away from the Vols’ linebackers and secondary.
Before that play, Jeffery — widely regarded as one of college football’s best wideouts — had one catch for 5 yards.
Reveiz, one of the last Vols with a shot at Jeffery, said he and others just had “bad pursuit” on the play.
“If you don’t take away every single option, he’s going to find a way to get loose,” Reveiz said. “Obviously, we didn’t take away every single option.”
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Jeffery “doesn’t look like he’s fast, but no one seems to catch him from behind.”
UT sophomore Prentiss Waggner didn’t disagree.
“We did a good job of being physical with him at the line of scrimmage and getting our hands on him early,” said Waggner, who moved from safety to cornerback. “He couldn’t get going — but then, man, he just made a great play. He just made us all miss and took it the distance. Credit to him. It was just a great play.
“His speed is very deceptive. It doesn’t look like he’s moving that fast, but he’s got those long strides. He’s a whole lot faster than he looks.”
The Vols didn’t score on their next drive, but they flipped the field and pinned the Gamecocks at their own 8 with 8:00 left.
But 63 of Lattimore’s 184 rushing yards accounted for more than two-thirds of South Carolina’s ensuing touchdown drive, and Garcia’s second 1-yard scoring sneak essentially ended the game.
Lattimore added 26 yards on two catches, giving him 210 all-purpose yards on 31 touches.
“He looked like Secretariat running through us,” Dooley said.
Said Reveiz: “Quite honestly, I think he’s as good as any back we’ve seen this season. And we’ve seen a lot of good ones.”
Reveiz was promptly reminded that UT has faced Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson and Oregon’s LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
“He’s that good,” Reveiz said. “He’s a very powerful, strong runner, especially for an 18- or 19-year-old kid, a true freshman. You don’t see that a whole lot. He gets his head down, moves forward and gets the tough yards.
“It’s hard as one guy to bring him down.”
The Vols also had their moments. And they had their star.
Senior wideout Denarius Moore had 228 yards on just six catches, a performance topped only by Kelley Washington’s 256-yard night against LSU in 2001.
“He was phenomenal,” Dooley said.
UT true freshman quarterback Tyler Bray wasn’t bad, either, especially considering his catastrophic start.
Bray, a 6-foot-6 Californian, came off the bench for junior Matt Simms early in the third quarter and promptly tossed an interception to South Carolina sagging-back sophomore defensive end Devin Taylor, who returned it 24 untouched yards to the end zone.
“I didn’t see the defensive end drop,” Bray said. “It was my mistake, but I came back ... and started throwing it to the playmakers.”
Bray certainly atoned, finishing 9-of-15 for 159 yards and two touchdowns in a five-minute span — a 30-yarder to Moore, and a 17-yarder to Jones — that leveled the score and momentarily stunned South Carolina.
“I’m real proud of him,” Moore said. “He came in and was a little shaky at first, but he came back in with confidence.”
Senior tight end Luke Stocker, who caught a 12-yard touchdown from Simms to tie the score late in the first half, said Bray “stayed even-keeled.”
“He didn’t get affected by his mistake, and he made up for it and got us back in the ball game, so that’s definitely a positive,” Stocker said.
Bray wasn’t UT’s only positive. Even Dooley conceded that “there were a lot of good things.”
“I was proud of the team for the fight they showed and the resolve that they showed,” he said.
But, again, the SEC’s only team without a league win left with another loss.
“Yeah, we lost again, but it’s getting better,” Jackson said. “We played really good today. We scored over 10 points. That was good. We moved the ball, and we got some stops.
“Minus a few mistakes, I think we played a really good game. We can build on this. We can definitely build on this.”