South Carolina vs. Tennessee: 10 Things We Learned in Vols' Win
The Tennessee Volunteers got the monkey off their back and beat a ranked foe for the first time since 2009, topping the No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks on a chip-shot field goal, as time expired, 23-21.
Two weeks removed from a heartbreaking loss to then-No. 6 Georgia, the Vols faced another elite SEC East foe and didn't squander the opportunity late this time around.
Like they typically do against highly ranked foes, the Vols got on top early on in this one. But they actually held it heading into the locker room, going into halftime with a 17-7 lead.
The momentum quickly shifted in the third quarter behind two South Carolina touchdowns, which gave Tennessee a 21-17 deficit heading into the final 15 minutes.
But the defense tightened up in the final quarter, and two huge plays from the passing game set up two field goals that, ultimately, were the difference.
Here are the 10 things I learned from Saturday's contest.
Steven Cook was live in the press box at Neyland Stadium for the Vols' win.
The Wait Is Over
It's been 1,449 days since Tennessee last beat a ranked team.
Between Oct. 31, 2009—a 31-13 win over No. 22 South Carolina—and Saturday, the Vols have come within seconds of breaking that spell and suffered heartbreak more times than you can count on two hands.
Whether it was last-second madness against LSU, or second-half collapses against Alabama and Florida, or two weeks ago against Georgia, that signature win has eluded the Vols in many moments where it seemed like fate was on their side.
No longer. They came out victorious against a top-15 foe and a team with national-title aspirations entering the season, sending Neyland Stadium into jubilation and uncorking years of pent-up emotion.
And if Butch Jones has proven anything in his short time as UT's coach, it's that this win wasn't a fluke. The Vols were the better team, and they deserved it—which you may not have been able to say about any of those other near-wins since 2009.
Marquez North Will Forever Be Remembered in Knoxville
World, Marquez North. Marquez North, world.
The talented true freshman wideout started the season off slow, but his potential was evident from training camp. In his last two outings—and especially Saturday—he proved his worth.
North seemingly climbed up a ladder over his defender to corral a 48-yard catch in the fourth quarter amid tight coverage that put Tennessee into field-goal range, allowing it to trim the lead to 21-20 with plenty of time still left.
But it was his clutch, against-the-odds catch on the game-winning drive that will forever be remembered in Tennessee lore. On 3rd-and-10, when the Vols' comeback bid was dwindling, North came down with an incredible one-handed catch amid tight coverage to put UT into field-goal range for the game-winner.
This comes two weeks removed from an epic second-half touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone that injected life into a struggling UT team against then-No. 6 Georgia.
It's no secret that the Tennessee offense needs playmakers to step up, and the last time some guys did so, it nearly resulted in a victory over No. 6 Georgia.
This time around, it made the difference.
Dave Hart Found a Diamond in the Rough in Butch Jones
Even glass-half-full fans acknowledged, going into 2013, that the Vols may not beat an elite SEC foe for a couple of years.
Most of those same fans were heartbroken back in December, when athletics director Dave Hart hired Butch Jones after Mike Gundy and Charlie Strong—among others—turned down the Vols' job.
For perspective, Strong's Louisville team was knocked off by UCF on Friday—which South Carolina beat. The Vols just beat South Carolina, seven games into Jones' tenure. Indirect wins may be irrelevant, but that's hard to ignore.
The way Jones turned around the culture in Knoxville impacted the recruiting trail (fourth-ranked class via 247Sports) and in his players, but it hadn't yet translated into that signature win. Dooley nearly beat an elite team in his first year, too, as Jones matched two weekends ago.
Instead of that loss breaking the Vols' back and getting their heads down heading into another game against another elite foe, they only got better. That is 100 percent due to the mentality this coaching staff has pushed onto its players.
Justin Worley Has Guts
Constantly under pressure in the backfield, Justin Worley stepped up and made big plays—both with his arm and his feet—to get his Vols in front early and keep them in the game down the stretch.
Worley's stat line, as usual, won't blow anyone away. He was 19-of-34 with 179 yards and a touchdown, among two huge passes to Marquez North.
But he showed a ton of poise in the pocket, shaking off defenders and even ran for a first down on 3rd-and-11 late in the game. He showed unwavering confidence by throwing deep to North on a number of occasions, and it was the difference in the game.
At times, Worley was being attacked in the pocket and still was able to step up into some big throws. That confidence is something I didn't see against any of UT's early-season opponents before Georgia.
For two straight games, Worley proved that he's capable of giving his team a marquee victory. And that's very applaudable for Vol fans, who saw a near-incompetent QB in him through the first few games of the season.
The O-Line Isn't as Dominant as Advertised
Antonio "Tiny" Richardson vs. Jadeveon Clowney facing off Saturday was like Christmas for NFL draft scouts—and a nightmare for Richardson.
Clowney wasted no time erupting, posting three first-half tackles for losses, which was as many as he had notched going into Saturday. He did a masterful job of swimming past the stronger, slower Richardson and consequentially plummeting his opponents' draft stock after Tiny manhandled him when the two faced off last year.
It wasn't all Clowney, however. Gamecocks defensive linemen were in the backfield during most of the second half, thwarting what was a formidable run game for the Vols early on. Despite being touted as one of the nation's best offensive lines heading into the season, the unit struggled mightily against one of the best front-sevens they'll face all year.
If Worley hadn't stood tall to much of that pressure as well as he did, it could've gotten ugly quick. Fortunately, he did, and the O-line was able to give him enough time in the pocket to win the game.
Mobile QBs Are the Vols' Kryptonite
Marcus Mariota, Tyler Murphy, heck, even Aaron Murray. Quarterbacks scrambling for big plays is the kryptonite to Tennessee's Superman.
After bottling up quarterback Connor Shaw for much of the first half, he broke out for a couple of big-gainers on the Gamecocks' second-half scoring drives. He finished with 19 carries for 78 yards and a touchdown—the third straight time he's rushed for a score against Tennessee.
Murray's 57-yard gain for Georgia two weeks ago was a huge difference in the game, as it set up a fourth-quarter touchdown. Shaw broke off for a couple of those fateful runs, albeit none reached the 50-yard plateau.
With the Vols playing so well against the pass on Saturday, Shaw's ability to pick up huge first downs with his feet turned into a big game-changer. If he hadn't gotten hurt late in the game, who knows what could've happened.
This dynamic will come into play down the road, and John Jancek's defense better figure out how to bottle it up.
The Vols Boast a Two-Headed Monster at RB
The running game wasn't a question heading into Saturday, after Rajion Neal broke off for more than 300 yards on the ground in his last two games.
But questions surfaced as to who'd tote the rock behind him, with perceived backup Marlin Lane coming off a nagging injury that kept him out of the Georgia game.
Consider those answered. Neal was, again, the featured back with 24 carries for 77 yards, but it was Lane's change of pace and intensity in hitting the hole that made the difference.
Entering the second half with fresh legs, the junior amassed 12 carries for 55 yards and moved the chains in crucial situations for the Vols.
When Neal got dinged up late, Lane came in and nearly iced the game by scampering into the end zone on that final drive. Despite not getting there, he set up a chip shot for kicker Michael Palardy to win the game.
Secondary Is Playing Beyond Its Years
The secondary—well, the cornerback position, really—was the key to the Vols' season entering 2013, as it started one true freshman out wide and a far-from-deep rotation.
And it played out of its mind Saturday.
Connor Shaw went just 7-of-21 through the air for 161 yards and a score, and true freshman Cameron Sutton picked him off in UT territory, marking Shaw's first interception of the season in 177 attempts.
The Gamecocks tried to pick on the young Sutton, but he shook it off and had a big day on the outside when one more lapse would've lost his team the game.
Short of one 76-yard touchdown in the first half, the Vols bottled up the big play from the Gamecocks' passing offense one week after they hung 52 points on Arkansas.
Neyland Stadium Is Finally an Elite Atmosphere, Once Again
The 102,455 seating capacity at Neyland Stadium is a lot less daunting when it's 80 percent full of fans with low expectations. That's been the case over much of the last half-decade.
But over the last two contests, the iconic venue has regained its status as one of college football's elite atmospheres that can make calling audibles—or winning, rather—impossible.
Three times in the first half, Shaw was unable to get the ball snapped in time. Twice, it resulted in a delay-of-game call, and the other, Steve Spurrier burned a timeout.
Of course, it's much more than an impact on opposing offenses.
It's in the blood of Volunteers to feed off the Neyland Stadium energy. As much of a positive as that's been, it's also hampered the team when the life is sucked out of the 100,000-plus fans.
But with this year's team, confidence never wavers, and that's reciprocated into the crowd. They were raucous from start to finish, despite it being a noon ET kickoff and fall break for students.
Don't write off the Vols when they play in Neyland. Ever.
Vols Won't Be Short on Confidence at Alabama
The gauntlet of UT's schedule—Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama—was supposed to derail the Vols' season and return the hype on "Rocky Top" back to a tempered state.
The Vols were five seconds away from going 2-0 to start off that gauntlet.
But they'll need all of that confidence next weekend, as they go on the road to face two-time defending national champion Alabama. Per Knoxville News Sentinel's Ben Frederickson, Richardson isn't scared.
It's arguable whether or not the Vols showed enough in their last two games to pose as a serious threat to Alabama, especially on the road. But after the last two contests, not a single UT player will be making that trip expecting anything other than a win.
That's just the mentality that Jones has imposed on this team. They'd think that regardless.
But these are 18- to 22-year-old guys. They have a grasp of reality, and Alabama's dominance.
They also know now that they can play with the big boys of the SEC. And that's a very valuable thing to have on your side.