South Carolina fell to Tennessee 41 to 20 on Saturday night in Knoxville. The Gamecocks did not have enough offensive firepower to match the Volunteers amidst the rowdy crowd in Neyland Stadium. Key matchups to watch were the Gamecock’s protection against the Vol defense, Spencer Rattler against their secondary, and the Tennessee rushing attack against the Gamecock front. Carolina lost in all three of these key areas. As the momentum continued to swell for Tennessee, the fans of Neyland also continued to be a factor.
Beaten on the Ground
Tennessee came into the game leading the SEC in rushing. The Gamecocks did not have enough to slow down the Volunteers at all. South Carolina’s defense plays a lot of man-to-man. This method puts pressure on its corners and gives more opportunities to stack the box against the run. Tennessee was able to expose this scheme by running slants in the passing game and rushing for 238 yards. The Vol’s ability to gash the Gamecocks in the run game set up their offense to have consistent success despite two interceptions from Joe Milton.
South Carolina’s defense was able to battle and keep the Gamecocks in the game in the first half. An interception by DQ Smith shifted momentum early in the game and led to a Gamecock lead. At that point, the defense settled in nicely and held their own through the first two quarters. Coming out of halftime, the momentum was with the Vols as they led by 14. A game-shifting opportunity for both teams hinged on the opening drive of the third quarter. For South Carolina, a stop would give the offense a chance to cut the lead to one score and recapture momentum. For Tennessee, it was a chance for a knockout blow. The Vols landed the punch and went up by 21 after running for 69 of the 75 yards needed to reach the end zone. While the Gamecocks defense held in the first half, they did not have enough to start the third quarter.
Rattler on the Run
Another game-shifting play came late in the second quarter when Rattler overthrew O’Mega Blake on a third and long play. The pass was intercepted and easily returned for a touchdown. This play allowed Tennessee to stretch their lead to two scores for the first time in the game. The turnover also allowed the Vols to take momentum into the locker room at halftime.
Dowell Loggains has previously referenced during media availability that Rattler is not “Charlie Checkdown.” In other words, he has consistently thrown the ball downfield. This was not the case in Knoxville on Saturday night. Rattler rarely pushed the ball down the field, even when he managed to find time to allow routes to develop downfield, Rattler couldn’t find the open man. The perceived lock of the day was Xavier Legette against a porous Volunteer secondary. Legette was expected to go over 100 yards yet again. However, Tennessee held the nation’s leading receiver to only five catches for 50 yards.
Lost the Line of Scrimmage
Finally, it was losing the line of scrimmage battle on offense that cost the Gamecocks the most. Mario Anderson had the highlight of the day with a 75-yard touchdown run on the Gamecocks’ first offensive play of the second half. Outside of that play, Anderson had nine carries for 26 yards. The team rushed for 132 yards, only the second time the Gamecocks have rushed for over 100 yards and lost under Shane Beamer. The only other loss in a 100-yard rushing effort was also in Neyland Stadium. However, the rushing totals are certainly skewed by the burst from Anderson. Outside of that one play, Carolina had no running game. Their ability to get a push up front was nonexistent.
The lack of a running game coupled with the increasing deficit throughout the game, put Rattler in more and more passing situations. Credit Tennessee’s defensive front with dominant play. They sacked Rattler six times. South Carolina lost a head-to-head recruiting battle for James Pearce Jr. and felt the impact of that loss tonight as Pearce had two sacks on his own. The defensive front for the Vols can be credited with the interception for a touchdown that Rattler threw as well. Pressure up the middle forced Rattler to throw hastily and prevented him from following through when he released the ball. As a result, the ball sailed right over the receiver and into the hands of Kamal Hadden, who was torched in last year’s matchup between the Gamecocks and the Vols.
Ultimately, the Gamecocks were not enough on Saturday night. They were not physical enough. They did not execute well enough. South Carolina lost the game in multiple phases. While this loss does not dispel all of the season’s goals, it does make it more difficult to obtain them. Now the Gamecocks enter a bye week with the bad taste of a 21-point loss to a divisional rival. Carolina will not see the Volunteers in 2024 and will therefore have to live with this loss for at least two years.
In all likelihood, South Carolina would love to be on the field playing a game again tomorrow. However, the challenge for Beamer and his staff will be helping this team shake this big loss mentally and continue to focus as they prepare for Florida to come to Columbia in two weeks. All of the games ahead are winnable, but the Gamecocks should use the break to get healthy and find some answers along the lines of scrimmage.