On a day things fell into place for USC to take a major step forward in the SEC East race, the Gamecocks fell backwards at Tennessee, thanks in large part to the right arm of former Northwestern star Justin Worley and the left leg of Michael Palardy.
Worley got the Vols in game winning position with a 39 yard pass to Marquez North to the Gamecock 26 with two minutes to play and Palardy booted the winning field goal from 19 yards out on the game’s final play as Tennessee stunned USC 23-21 before 95,736 at Neyland Stadium. It’s Tennessee’s first win over a ranked opponent since last beating the Gamecocks in 2009,
With Georgia and Florida going down ahead of them, the Gamecocks could have put themselves squarely in position to take the division with a win today and one next week at Missouri. Now, they find themselves jumbled up with the Bulldogs and Gators with two league losses each while Mizzou stands alone as the only unbeaten team in the East.
Adding injury to the insult of losing, Gamecock quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles both went down with knee injuries late in the game. The extent of those injuries won’t be know until later in the weekend.
It was an offensive struggle for USC from the beginning and the Gamecocks trailed 17-7 at halftime, their only score coming on a 76 yard Shaw to Damiere Byrd touchdown pass. But the Gamecocks dominated the third quarter and scored a pair of touchdowns for a 21-17 lead going into the final 15 minutes.
The Gamecocks’ offense died in the fourth quarter. They had the ball to start the period and on that drive and the ensuing three, the Gamecocks managed 15 yards and no first downs. They had more yards in penalties, 30, than they had in total offense.
Steve Spurrier will be criticized for his handling of the final 5:44. USC took possession at its own 12 with the one point lead and Spurrier had Shaw pass twice. The first was one was incomplete, and on the second attempt Shaw was sack and injured. Dylan Thompson replaced Shaw and completed a pass on third down but short of the first down. USC punted to the Tennessee 45 but used up only 1:11 off the clock and allowed Tennessee to keep its three time outs.
The Vols did a quick three and out and punted back to the Gamecock 18 with 3:16 left. Now, the Gamecocks ran the ball three times and forced the Vols to spend their time outs. Facing fourth and two from his 26, Spurrier twice sent his offense onto the field, using a pair of his own time outs in the process, before deciding to punt. Afterwards Spurrier said he was considering going for it before deciding to boot it away.
That punt to the Tennessee 35 set up the Vol’s drive to the winning field goal. Worley’s pass to North was a thing of beauty. He was under pressure from Jadeveon Clowney, who by the way had his best game of the season, and North made a one handed grab with Ahmad Christian draped all over him. USC was in nickel coverage will all their best cover men, including Victor Hampton, on the field, and the Vols simply made a great play.
The loss spoiled another big day by Mike Davis who rushed for 137 yards on 21 carries, his 6th 100 yard rushing day of the season. And Byrd finished with 4 catches for a career high 121 yards.
As for Clowney, he was a presence all day long and finished with 5 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 pressures. Quarles had the Gamecocks’ only sack of the day while Tennessee got to Shaw 4 times. Shaw finished the day 7 of 21 for 161 yards and saw his string of 177 consecutive passes without an interception come to an end in the third quarter. Shaw also rushed for 78 yards on 19 attempts.
Worley was 19 of 34 for 179 yards including a 6 yard touchdown pass. North had 3 catches for 102 yards and Rajion Neal rushed for 77 yards.
The Gamecocks saw their three game winning streak over the Vols come to an end as they fall to 5-2 overall, 3-2 in the SEC. Tennessee is 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the league.
The Gamecocks complete their three game SEC road trip next week at Missouri with a 7:00 kickoff on either ESPN or ESPN2.