KNOXVILLE — For the first time in what must seem like months, Tennessee found itself riding some momentum in a third quarter.
One diving interception and one long, grueling drive later, South Carolina had sucked the life from the upstart Volunteers.
The Gamecocks, trying to stay in control of their own destiny in the race for the Southeastern Conference’s East Division title, went on a 20-play drive that ate up more than 11 minutes of the third quarter in a 14-3 win in front of 96,665 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.
The Vols (3-5, 0-5) had just 186 yards of offense for the game and managed just 58 in the second half.
“We fought them hard, but we’re just a mess on offense,” UT coach Derek Dooley said. “Can’t run, struggled to throw it. I don’t know what else you can defensively. For the most part, we couldn’t get anything on offense. It was a real struggle.”
UT, which is last in the SEC in turnovers, forced three in the game, all inside the South Carolina 30-yard line. Reserve linebacker John Propst recovered a muffed punt by Ace Sanders at the UT 18 that led to a field goal.
The Vols spoiled Prentiss Waggner’s interception-and-return and freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson’s recovery of a fumble forced by freshman Brian Randolph with interceptions of true freshman quarterback Justin Worley, who was making the first start of his career.
Worley, who finished 10-of-26 passing for 105 yards, missed on a potential touchdown to Da’Rick Rogers in the end zone in the first quarter, and Rogers dropped what would have been a touchdown in the second quarter on what might have been Worley’s best throw of the night.
“He had a tough day out there,” Dooley said. “Couple of interceptions in the red area [he’s] got to learn from. It’s hard. Struggled a little bit administratively, had to chop some timeouts.
“He’s making some nice throws, he made a couple of nice throws, and just wanted to try to get him a rhythm. We didn’t help him. He did some good things, and he struggled with some things, which I expected it to happen because ... it’s just his first time. He just hasn’t had the work.”
Worley’s first interception, after Waggner’s return set up UT at the Gamecocks’ 2, turned out to be the worst because of what ensued.
South Carolina (7-1, 5-1) drove 98 yards on 20 plays after safety D.J. Swearinger dove for a pickoff just outside of the end zone. The Gamecocks were a perfect 6-for-6 on third-down conversions in the possession, mostly because the longest was a third-and-5 in which quarterback Connor Shaw scored.
“We were trying to run the ball and Brandon [Wilds] kept picking up third-and-shorts,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “I’ve only had one other [20-play drive] in my life that long, and it happened right here in 1982, Duke University, we went from the same 1-yard line over there to this 1-yard line and killed the clock. We did it then in the fourth quarter.”
All but three of the plays in the drive were running plays, including 52 yards on 11 carries from true freshman tailback Wilds, who was effective running out of the shotgun.
“We were getting beat on first and second down,” UT linebacker Austin Johnson said. “It just put us in a bad position, and that’s our fault. We need to be better on first and second down.”
The Gamecocks lost star tailback Marcus Lattimore in their last game to a season-ending knee injury, but with the powerful straight-ahead running style of the 6-foot-1, 223-pound Wilds, South Carolina didn’t miss a beat. He ran for 137 yards on 28 carries after entering the game with just 13 carries this season, and Shaw added 64 yards on 16 runs.
“He’s a good back,” said Spurrier, who called a play-action pass on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter that resulted in Shaw’s 23-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rory Anderson.
“I mentioned coming in that he’s a good back. If we’ll block for him a little bit, he’ll make some yards. He did that, he can make yards, he runs forward, has good body lean and can break some tackles.”
While UT’s defense stiffened after that, the Vols’ offense could never make anything of it. Matt Simms, who started the last two games at quarterback after Tyler Bray broke his thumb against Georgia, replaced Worley with 10 minutes left in the game.
The senior completed five of his 12 throws, including a pair of fourth-down completions, but his fourth-down incompletion with 6:33 remaining effectively ended the game. Dooley refused to make any decision on his quarterback situation moving forward to next week’s home game against Middle Tennessee State.
“We’re struggling on offense. I don’t know any other way to say it,” Dooley said. “Execution’s bad, we make throwing and catching bad three weeks in a row. Got to find some answers. We’re just a different football team right now on offense, very different.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...