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AP photo by Sean Rayford / South Carolina running back Kevin Harris tries to get away from Tennessee's Kenneth George Jr., right, and Devon Dillehay during the first half of Saturday night's season and SEC opener for both teams in Columbia, S.C.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — There were multiple times during Tennessee's preseason when coach Jeremy Pruitt made it clear that the defensive front was not winning him over.

"We've got guys who can play winning football," Pruitt said earlier this month, "but we've got to play with more toughness up there and more awareness, and we've got to be more consistent."

The Volunteers showed signs they received that message during Saturday night's opener at South Carolina, but it was far from 60 minutes of dominance. After allowing the Gamecocks an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on their inaugural possession, Tennessee stiffened up front defensively in helping hold the hosts to just 50 total yards the remainder of the first half.

Matthew Butler and Greg Emerson each batted down passes during the first half, while Kivon Bennett combined with linebacker Deondre Johnson on a first-half sack of Collin Hill. Johnson had a solo sack as well in the first 30 minutes, as did freshman defensive back Doneiko Slaughter.

Johnson also tallied a fourth-quarter sack.

South Carolina was forced to be one-dimensional due to Tennessee's defense holding the Gamecocks to 26 rushing yards on 19 first-half carries, but that wound up being problematic as well, as Hill and receiver Shi Smith repeatedly gave the Vols fits. When the two connected for a 29-yard touchdown in the third quarter, it gave Smith 113 yards in the game.

Through three quarters, South Carolina had 26 rushes for just 40 yards, but the Gamecocks broke out early in the fourth quarter for 38 rushing yards on a drive that ended with Parker White's 35-yard field goal that forced a 24-24 deadlock.

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AP photo by Sean Rayford / South Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith (13) scores a touchdown as he gets through, from left, Tennessee's Trevon Flowers, Bryce Thompson and Doneiko Slaughter during the second half of Saturday night's game in Columbia, S.C.

Not 'Automaglia'

Vols senior kicker Brent Cimaglia missed his first field-goal attempt of the season, with his 47-yard try midway through the third quarter sailing wide left.

The 6-foot, 210-pound senior from Nashville is coming off a stellar junior year in which he made 23 of 27 attempts, including from 51 and 53 yards. He was 9-of-11 last season on attempts from beyond 40 yards, but his miss Saturday prevented the Vols from taking a 24-14 lead.

Cimaglia maded a 27-yard try late in the third quarter to put Tennessee up 24-21.

 

Sitting this one out

Tennessee junior guard Cade Mays didn't play against the Gamecocks, as his transfer waiver that was approved by the NCAA earlier this month has yet to be cleared by the Southeastern Conference office.

Mays played all five positions last season at Georgia and could have started at a guard or tackle spot.

Also missing the opener were senior defensive back Shawn Shamburger and senior defensive lineman Darel Middleton.

Middleton posted on Twitter that his absence was due to health, adding, "Back next week after a couple checkups."

 

Odds and ends

Saturday marked the latest start to a Tennessee football season since the Vols lost 22-21 to Auburn on Sept. 29, 1962, at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama. Tennessee entered Saturday night with a 26-10-2 series advantage, including a 9-7-2 edge in Columbia.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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