South Carolina Football: Full game notes from Tennessee loss

South Carolina football punter Kai Kroeger throwing the ball for a 1st down against Tennessee. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football punter Kai Kroeger throwing the ball for a 1st down against Tennessee. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports /
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South Carolina football returned to .500 last week with a win over Mississippi State at a sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium. This week, the Gamecocks traveled to Knoxville for a big game with the Tennessee Volunteers.

A capacity crowd at Neyland Stadium was ravenously hungry for revenge after what happened to their team last season at the hands of the Gamecocks. Shane Beamer’s team, for those who have forgotten, eliminated the Vols from College Football Playoff contention with a 63-38 smackdown. That wasn’t quite how this Saturday’s game went.

For a shorter summary of the Tennessee game, click here.

South Carolina Football vs. Tennessee:
A Game Summary

After a very Gamecock-friendly highlight montage of last season’s game on the SECNetwork, toe met leather, and the game was underway as the opening kickoff went through the end zone for a touchback. The “dark mode activated” (all-black uniforms) Vols kicked off to the Gamecocks to start the proceedings.

A run for no gain from Mario Anderson was followed by a Spencer Rattler 18-yard scramble in which he escaped from near disaster twice. That would be all the offense Carolina could muster on the drive, but punter Kai Kroeger pinned the Vols inside their own 10-yard line.

Tennessee picked up four lightning-quick first downs to get to mid-field on short passes and runs. Then, on 3rd-and-1, UT running back Jaylen Wright squirted through a defensive front that was not set, and DQ Smith missed an open-field tackle. 42 yards later, the score stood 7-0. The 9-play, 94-yard drive took just over three minutes off of the game clock.

On the ensuing drive, a nicely executed screen saw Tree Babalade and Nick Gargiulo clear a path for Ahmarean Brown to go over 40 yards to take the ball near the Tennessee 30 yard line. The Gamecocks set up a double pass two plays later, but the look wasn’t there. Still, Xavier Legette ran for the first down. The Gamecocks were stymied in the red zone, but a Mitch Jeter 36-yard kick made the score 7-3.

A big hit from walk-on Ronnie Porter on the kickoff seemed to give some life to the Carolina defense. The Gamecocks forced a bad throw from Joe Milton on 1st down for an incompletion, stuffed the 2nd down run, and picked off Milton on another poor throw on 3rd down. DQ Smith worked to atone for his earlier missed tackle with his 1st interception of the season. It was USC’s first interception against Tennessee since 2016.

Taking over inside the UT 30, the Gamecocks got a break on a Tennessee face mask before Mario Anderson took the offense inside the 5. Two plays netted two yards, but a false start set the team back to 3rd-and-goal from the 6. After seeing no one open, Spencer Rattler took off through the teeth of the blitz and went airborne to give the Gamecocks their first lead 10-7.

The first play from scrimmage went for 20 yards on the legs of Jabari Small, and play two was a bomb from Milton to Squirrel White who beat Nick Emmanwori on a jump ball inside the 5. Small got the next two carries, and the Gamecocks weren’t quite set on the second as Small walked into the end zone. In less than a minute of clock, Tennessee retook the lead 14-10.

A short completion capped a perfectly accurate 1st quarter for Spencer Rattler (he has just one 1st quarter incompletion this season), and the score stood 14-10 at the break with the Gamecocks just past their own 30-yard line.

A coverage sack forced a 3-and-out from the Gamecocks…or so it seemed. Kai Kroeger, standing on his own 15-yard line, fired a pass out wide to Xavier Legette. Legette stumbled after the catch, or he might have scored (there would have just been one man to beat). As it stood, the Gamecocks continued their drive at the Tennessee 40.

Kroeger stayed on the field with the offense for the next play, but an injured Tennessee player ruined whatever trickeration the Gamecocks had planned. The true offense retook the field after the short timeout, but Juju McDowell missed the hole on 3rd down to force a 4th-and-short try. Legette caught the ball in the flat, but the Rattler pass was a little slow getting there, and the Gamecocks were short by a half-yard.

DQ Smith missed another tackle early in the next drive, and UT back Dylan Sampson took a short shuffle pass to the Gamecock 30. A few converted short throws moved the Vol offense to the 11. The defense held from there, though, forcing a Charles Campbell field goal try. The 24-yard attempt was true, extending the orange and white (and black?) lead to 17-10.

The Gamecocks went three-and-out after a Nick Gargiulo holding call negated a 1st down run from Mario Anderson. Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy suffered what appeared to be a very serious leg injury on a 1st down catch to get the next drive started.

After play resumed, the Gamecocks gave up a short rush, Bam Martin-Scott sacked Joe Milton, and the defense forced an incompletion to get the ball back. After the punt, the Gamecocks started their drive at the 8 yard line with just under 5:00 to play in the half.

A 1st down sack backed the offense up by four yards, and an incompletion and Rattler scramble weren’t enough to secure a new set of downs. Tennessee took over near their own 40 after the Kroeger punt but went 3-and-out. The Campbell punt ended up in the orange and white checkered end zone, giving Carolina the ball back at the 20 yard line with 2:23 on the clock.

A sack, a -2-yard completion, and a Trey Knox false start backed up the offense into a 3rd-and-22 situation. A strange play call for an across-the-field, short-yardage throw resulted in a free rusher at Spencer Rattler. The first bad pass of the game was an overthrow that fell into the hands of Kamal Hadden, who walked into the end zone.

24-10 in favor of Tennessee was the score when the Gamecocks took over with 47 seconds left in the half. A celebration penalty on Tennessee after the touchdown and a penalty for kicking the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, gave the ball back to Rattler and the Gamecocks at the 50 yard line.

A nice gain on 1st down was negated by another sack against freshman Tree Babalade. A drop from DK Joyner killed what would have been a conversion and a move into field goal range, so the Gamecocks punted again. Kroeger was hit on the punt, but no flag was thrown. Tennessee took a knee to mercifully send this one to halftime at 24-10.

After kicking to start the game, Tennessee received the first possession of the 2nd half. The Vols, primarily on the ground, moved through Clayton White’s defense like a hot knife through butter. When Milton and the offense got close to the end zone, they decided to attack through the air, and #7 found tight end Jacob Warren for a touchdown to bring the score to 31-10.

The Gamecock offensive line opened their biggest hole of the night on the very next snap, and Mario Anderson scampered straight up the middle for a 75-yard score. 31-17 was still a two-score deficit, but it was a needed answer from the South Carolina football squad.

The Carolina defense forced a 3-and-out after a Joe Milton pass was too hot to handle for a Vol wideout, and USC got the ball back with the opportunity to bring the contest back to a one-possession game. A few nice plays put the Gamecocks right around field goal range, but a failed quarterback sneak on 4th-and-short gave the ball back to the Vols.

Tennessee ran the ball almost at will down the field on the next drive, but Jalon Kilgore picked off Joe Milton right in front of the goal line for the Gamecocks’ second takeaway on the night.

Carolina narrowly avoided a safety twice (a DK Joyner rush was stuffed, and Spencer Rattler almost stepped out of the back of the end zone while avoiding the pass rush). A punt out of the Carolina end zone was returned for a touchdown by Dee Williams, but a block in the back brought the ball back to the 40 yard line.

Tennessee ran the ball three straight times to earn a 1st down, and the 3rd quarter came to an end with the score sitting in favor of the Vols at 31-17.

The Gamecock defense benefitted from a false start and kept UT out of the end zone. Another Charles Campbell kick, this time from 33 yards out, doubled up the Gamecocks. The Volunteers led 34-17 in the early goings of the 4th period.

The Gamecock offensive line continued to struggle when they took over after the kickoff. Another sack, a stuffed run play, and a near-sack almost killed the drive. A very strange play saw Rattler almost fall as he was throwing. The pass was right to a Volunteer defensive back, but it bounced through his hands right to tight end Trey Knox for a 4th-down conversion.

That was the final conversion of the drive, however, as Mitch Jeter was called on for a 48-yard field goal. Jeter pushed it through the uprights to bring the margin back to a two-possession deficit. At 34-20, a comeback remained unlikely, however.

The small ember of hope for better fortunes was snuffed out as the Vols ran the ball all the way down the field. A Dylan Sampson touchdown brought the score to 41-20, and the run-heavy drive ticked the game clock all the way down to 4:09.

The Gamecocks failed to convert a 4th down on the next drive, and Tennessee ran out the clock.

Nothing about the Gamecocks’ performance was particularly good on offense. Mario Anderson was the top performer on that side of the ball, and Spencer Rattler, Xavier Legette, and Trey Knox had some good moments. The offensive line really struggled.

On defense, the trio of Jalon Kilgore, Nick Emmanwori, and DQ Smith were good in run support (other than a couple of missed tackles by Smith), and Kilgore and Smith each had an interception. Bam Martin-Scott had a sack. Nothing else was very good on defense.

Tennessee was the better team pretty much the entire game, even despite some struggles from quarterback Joe Milton.