No. 16 Tennessee wins seventh straight 31-27 over Gamecocks
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano expected a difficult time at South Carolina. He also expected the 16th-ranked Vols to come out on top, no matter how hard things got.
The Vols squandered a two-touchdown lead in the second half and held on to defeat the Gamecocks 31-27 for their seventh straight victory.
The game wasn’t decided until a Tennessee punt touched South Carolina’s Cam Smith and the Vols’ Jimmy Holiday recovered with 1:24 to go.
“When you go on the road in the SEC, nothing comes easy,” Guarantano said. “You saw some of that today.”
There was also plenty of Guarantano to see, as well. The fifth-year passer threw the tie-breaking touchdown to Josh Palmer with 9:35 left in the game, then stayed poised enough down the stretch to keep South Carolina at bay.
“I’m tickled that they found a way you know?” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said.
Despite the nerve-wracking finish Pruitt said it was mission accomplished for the Vols.
“The bottom line is we’re leaving Columbia with a ‘W’, and that’s what we came here for,” he said.
Tennessee looked to have the Southeastern Conference and season opener in hand when they went ahead 21-7 on Eric Gray’s 12-yard scoring run on their opening drive of the third quarter.
But South Carolina rallied behind first-time starter quarterback Collin Hill with two touchdowns and a field goal to tie it at 24-all in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Guarantano struck with back-to-back big plays for the deciding score.
Guarantano was heavily pressured when he got the ball to an all-alone Brandon Johnson for 33 yards inside South Carolina territory. The next play, Guarantano threw a picture perfect pass to Palmer for a 32-yard touchdown.
Palmer was grateful Guarantano trusted him with the play. ”But it was just a traditional go route, beat the defender and caught it over the shoulder,” he said.
For Pruitt, there was lots of inconsistency to correct for Guarantano and the offense going forward.
“We’ve got to go back and figure out where we are offensively and where we can create some consistency,” the third-year coach said. “But we put some drives together and finished the game off.”
South Carolina looked like it had a final chance when it forced a Tennessee punt with 90 seconds left. But the punt touched Cam Smith after it hit the ground, Holiday recovered and the Vols ran out the clock for the win.
“No one play lost us the game,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said.
Guarantano finished 19 of 31 for 259 yards. He also rushed for Tennessee’s first touchdown.
South Carolina, with a new offensive coordinator in ex-Colorado State coach Mike Bobo and new quarterback in grad transfer Hill, showed some spark as it took the opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown on Kevin Harris’ 3-yard run.
Linebacker Henry To’o To’o had a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown, catching the ball after it bounced off receiver Shi Smith’s hands and tip-toeing down the sideline for the score.
Hill finished 25 of 39 passing for 290 yards and a touchdown. Smith had 10 catches for 140 yards for the Gamecocks.
Hill blamed himself for the interception, throwing the ball behind Smith where To’o To’o could make the defensive play.
“The play that sticks out to me is the pick six,” Hill said. “You just can’t turn the ball over.”
South Carolina was looking to get the ball back with a chance to win the game with a successful two-minute drill, but a fumble on a punt return gave the Volunteers the ball and clinched a 31-27 victory over the Gamecocks in both team’s season opener.
140 – Shi Smith had his second consecutive 100-yard game in a contest against Tennessee as he caught 10 passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the 31-27 loss. Smith had 156 yards receiving against Tennessee last year, which is a career high.
Carolina travels to Florida for a noon kick with the Gators next Saturday (Oct. 3). The game will be televised on ESPN.