Vols’ playoff hopes shattered by woeful defensive effort

AP photo by Artie Walker Jr. / Tennessee wide receiver Cedric Tillman is tackled by South Carolina defensive back Marcellas Dial during the first half of Saturday's matchup of SEC East teams in Columbia, S.C.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 TCU struggled on an eventful college football Saturday before surviving close calls.

If only No. 5 Tennessee could have been so fortunate.

With the opportunity to notch their latest convincing victory as three-touchdown favorites over South Carolina, the Volunteers were horrendous defensively in surrendering 35 first-half points. Tennessee found itself in an 18-point hole late in the second quarter and again early in the fourth before the damage worsened in a 63-38 loss to the Gamecocks before an energized crowd of 79,041 inside Williams-Brice Stadium.

The stunning setback assuredly dashes the College Football Playoff hopes for the Vols, who were No. 1 in the inaugural CFP rankings with an 8-0 record but are 1-2 since.

“For us and this program, this one needs to hurt on the way back,” Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said. “For us to grow as a program, you’ve got to look at this opportunity and understand what happened and let it hurt and remember it as you move forward to help you grow.”

An already forgettable evening for Tennessee became worse with 11:28 remaining, when quarterback Hendon Hooker suffered a noncontact knee injury that resulted in a fumble and the end of his night. Heupel did not have an immediate update on Hooker’s situation, adding he would be evaluated back in Knoxville.

South Carolina, which improved to 7-4 overall and completed a 4-4 mark in Southeastern Conference play, racked up 605 yards behind often-embattled quarterback Spencer Rattler. The former five-star Oklahoma signee who transferred after last season entered Saturday night with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions but threw for 438 yards with six scores and no picks.

The Gamecocks entered Saturday with the nation’s 92nd-ranked offense and having been blasted 38-6 last weekend at Florida, with South Carolina’s lone score coming off a faked punt.

“They’ve got big, strong, physical wideouts on the outside, and I felt like we would have the opportunity to match up out there,” Heupel said. “We played man, and we played zone. (Defensive coordinator) Tim (Banks) tried to find an answer to it, and at the end of the day we didn’t.

“They hit us a little bit early in the game with the wildcat (formation), but we anticipated some of those things. At the end of the day, we didn’t defend anything the way that you need to.”

South Carolina took a 35-17 lead with 2:04 remaining in the half on a 18-yard touchdown pass from Rattler to Josh Vann, but the Vols got within 35-24 with 12 seconds to spare before intermission on a 7-yard scoring toss from Hooker to Bru McCoy. Tennessee pulled within a possession on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Hooker to tight end Princeton Fant at the 9:53 mark of the third quarter, but the Gamecocks went back up by 11 at 42-31 on a 3-yard run by Antwane Wells that capped a nine-play, 65-yard drive.

“Just from start to finish, they did their job executing, and we didn’t do it,” Vols sixth-year senior defensive tackle LaTrell Bumphus said. “Obviously it showed up on the scoreboard. At times, we lacked getting pressure back there, and when you have all day to throw, it tends to be a lot easier.”

The Gamecocks became the first Tennessee opponent this season to score a touchdown on their opening possession, marching 75 yards in nine plays and converting on third-and-5 and fourth-and-6 along the way. South Carolina scored on a 19-yard pass from Rattler to Jaheim Bell, but the Vols had a rapid answer in the form of a four-play, 75-yard drive that required just 64 seconds.

Hooker completed passes to McCoy and Cedric Tillman before scrambling 29 yards to the South Carolina 31-yard line. Jabari Small went up the middle on the ensuing play to knot the score.

South Carolina went back up 14-7 on a 60-yard strike from Rattler to Vann, who beat an outstretched Doneiko Slaughter on the catch and had an open path to the end zone.

A holding penalty on Javontez Spraggins and a 10-yard sack of Hooker doomed Tennessee’s second possession, and the Gamecocks continued their early onslaught with a seven-play, 64-yard drive that ended in Rattler’s 11-yard touchdown toss to Juju McDowell.

South Carolina’s 21-7 advantage after the first quarter was in sharp contrast to last season’s 28-0 deficit after 15 minutes in Knoxville, but the Vols pulled back within 21-14 at the 12:24 mark of the second quarter after a 14-play, 75-yard possession ended with Hooker connecting with Tillman on fourth-and-goal from the 3. The one-score difference would again be short-lived, as the Gamecocks used Ahmarean Brown’s 34-yard run and a 15-yard pass from Dakereon Joyner to Rattler to set up Joyner’s 1-yard run and a 28-14 lead.

“I thought our kids prepared for this game in a really good way,” Heupel said. “We had good practices in the lead-up to it.”

Turnage’s setback

In last season’s 45-20 rout of South Carolina inside Neyland Stadium, Vols defensive back Brandon Turnage racked up 14 tackles and two tackles for loss to earn SEC defensive player of the week.

This time around wasn’t nearly as fun.

Turnage was humbled along with the rest of Tennessee’s secondary as the Gamecocks racked up 355 first-half yards and averaged 9.3 yards per snap, only the 6-foot-1, 186-pound redshirt junior didn’t make it all the way to halftime. With 2:30 remaining in the second quarter, Turnage sustained a lower-leg injury that resulted in Tennessee’s trainers instantly getting summoned to the field.

“We’ll evaluate him, too, when we get back,” Heupel said.

Turnage was spotted after the game in a walking boot.

Odds and ends

Fifth-year senior linebacker Jeremy Banks was ruled out before Saturday’s game for an undisclosed reason. … The Vols and Gamecocks have split their past 16 meetings. … South Carolina defensive back and leading tackler Nick Emmanwori was ejected for targeting Fant at the 7:14 mark of the second quarter. … The 35 first-half points by the Gamecocks were the most in any half of an SEC game for them since 1995.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

Updated with more information at 12:15 a.m. on Nov. 20, 2022.