KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s bedeviled Vols, who slipped into the dark doldrums of losing over the past three years, got a 19-yard field goal from Michael Palardy as time expired and beat 11th-ranked South Carolina, 23-21, before 95,736 thrilled-to-the-bone fans at Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
“This is a big win,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “We took a valuable step forward two weeks ago, although it was gut-wrenching (a 34-31 overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia), but our kids believed and built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing. We’ve pointed to this game for a long time.”
Tennessee made the most of its final shot at pulling off the huge upset for the first time in four years and taking the scissors to South Carolina’s four-game winning streak.
“It was a great win for the program, for us and the state of Tennessee,” Vols linebacker A.J. Johnson said.
The Vols improved to 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Southeastern Conference while snapping South Carolina’s three-game winning streak in the series. The Gamecocks fell to 5-2, 3-2.
“There are only four of us left in my (senior) class: me, Marlon Walls, Joseph Ayres and Greg King,” defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. “For what we’ve been through everything that we have, it’s nice to get that one win that we’ll be able to talk about forever.”
Palardy’s game-winning field goal wiped away a lot of disappointment for all the Vols. And Palardy, a senior from Coral Springs, Fla., who is having the best season of his career, made the kick and then turned and dashed toward the northeast corner of the stadium to start the postgame celebration.
“It has been a long time coming,” said Palardy, who also had field goals of 37 and 33 yards. “The biggest thing for me was coming back from my missed field goal earlier in the game, and just maintaining my focus.”
Jones and Palardy talked about such a scenario Friday night at the team’s hotel.
“I said, ‘You’ve got the game-winner tomorrow, right?’ ” Jones said. “And he said, ‘Gotcha, coach.’"
The Vols missed several scoring opportunities in the first half, but one drive that went nowhere seemingly cost them another chance at pulling a huge upset.
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Tennessee squandered a golden opportunity and faced a fourth-and-four at the South Carolina 49. Jones elected to punt. Palardy got off a 31-yader to the 18.
“The thinking was pin them down, play the field position game and force a three-and-out,” Jones said. (Connor) Shaw was out, so their back-up quarterback (Dylan Thompson) is in the game. We have unbelievable faith and trust in our defense.”
With the game on the line the Gamecocks had 3 minutes, 16 seconds to either widen the gap on kill the clock.
After a first down stop, the Vols called time out.
The Gamecocks got nothing on second down. Another UT timeout.
On third down, with 3:04 on the clock and Thompson was in for the injured Shaw, the reserve signal caller picked up 6 yards. Timeout No. 3.
On fourth-and-2 at their own 26 and with 2:55 remaining, the Gamecocks lined up to go for it. Coach Steve Spurrier called timeout. The offense jogged back on the field and lined up again.
Spurrier called another timeout.
The Cat – Spurrier – was playing mind games with the Mouse – Jones.
South Carolina punted.
“Looking back I always tell myself to go for those, but you look stupid if you leave them on the 30-yard line,” Spurrier said.
Tennessee set up shop at its own 35 with 2:48 left in the game.
First down. Worley failed to connect with a heavily defended Jason Croom.
Second down. Worley badly missed Croom.
Third down. Worley threw toward Marquez North, who made a sensational one-handed grab near the sideline despite tight coverage by Ahmad Christian to save the drive.
Thirty-nine yard gain. First down. At the Gamecocks’ 26. Two minutes, 23 seconds left.
“He’s made those plays since he got here,” Worley said. “He stepped up and made some huge plays for us.”
North finished with three catches for 102 yards.
Running back Marlin Lane picks up 5 to the 21 on first down.
Lane bogged down at the line of scrimmage, but bounced out for 6 yards and a first down at the 15. He tried the right side and lost a yard and then hit a left-side hole and dashed 14 yards to the 2.
Worley, standing upright behind center, watched clock tick down to 0:05, took the snap and spiked the ball to stop the clock at 0:03. Before the snap, Spurrier called his final timeout in an attempt to “ice” Palardy.
Parlardy calmly kicked his third field goal, a stake to the Gamecocks’ heart.
Game over. Bedlam.
"(Jones) tells me every day to visualize a game-winning kick because sooner or later it would come down to it," Palardy said. "Sure enough, he was right."
Tennessee players were running all over Shields-Watkins Field, glad-handing delirious fans who had just watched the Vols upend a ranked team for the first time since dropping the Gamecocks on Oct. 31, 2009 – a span of 19 games.
The entire Vol team huddled in the south corner of the end zone in front of the Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band to continue the celebration.
“We’re on winter break, but our fans were incredible,” Jones said. “The fans are part of us and we extended the celebration because that was our way to say thank you. I let our seniors enjoy this one.”
Everyone was hopping in step – in unison. They were singing Rocky Top and the place hadn’t rocked so hard in years. The Vols had finally shaken the frustration of three consecutive 5-7 seasons.
Jones chest-bumped athletic director Dave Hart as they lef the field.
Jones had broken the Vols’ chains of gridiron bondage. Long-time nemesis Spurrier had fallen and moved fertively -- no loud mouth this time -- into the stadium bowels to silently wonder what had just occurred before meeting the press.
“I think they out-played us, although we were within a play or two of winning, but we didn’t do it,” Spurrier said. “Tennessee had a good plan. We had a lot of careless penalties. Our guys can’t play by the rules.”
Tennessee had 325 yards of total offense and Worley completed 19-of-34 passes for 179 yards and a 6-yard touchdown strike to Alton Howard that gave the Vols a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
Mike Davis rushed 21 times for 137 yards and a touchdown to pace the Gamecocks’ ground attack.
Shaw, who left the game late with a left leg injury, went 7-for-21 for 161 yards and an interception. Damiere Byrd caught four passes for 121 yards and a touchdown.
“The trainer is calling it a sprained knee,” Spurrier said of the injury to Shaw. “I think it kind of collapsed under here when he got tackled. How serious it is we’ll have to wait on an evaluation.”
After wearing smoky gray uniforms for the first time when they almost knocked off Georgia, the Vols broke all the all-orange attire for Saturday’s game. They were also buoyed by the return of 200 former Tennessee players, who joined the team on the pregame Vol Walk and ran through the “T” just before kickoff. It seemed to inspire the current Vol players.
With that as a backdrop, the Vols built a 10-point halftime lead, but the Gamecocks took control in the third quarter with strong offensive line play and equally effective running.
After the Vols wasted Sutton’s interception, the first in 177 attempts, South Carolina drove 66 yards in 11 plays and pulled within 17-14 on Davis’ 21-yard touchdown run at the 9:46 mark.
Palardy, who had a superlative first half, missed a 46-yard field goal.
The Gamecocks went right back to work and Shaw directed a 70-yard drive – he converted a third-down play with a 29-yard scramble – and hit Rory Anderson on a 25-yard pass on which the Vols’ secondary blew coverage to the Tennessee 12. Shaw capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown and South Carolina had its first lead at 21-17.
On the Vols’ first possession of the fourth quarter, Worley scrambled for a first down and the Gamecocks’ Kelcy Quarles was slapped with a 15-yard “horse collar” penalty, moving the ball to the 42.
Worley fired a long pass toward the left sideline and Jason Croom made a leaping catch over defensive back Brison Williams, giving the Vols – who wore pink socks in conjunction with Cancer Awareness Month – a first down at the Gamecocks’ 16.
The drive bogged down and Palardy salvaged it with a 33-yard field goal to pull the Vols within 21-20 with 10:11 remaining.
Tennessee had most things go its way in the early going except for finding the end zone.
Three-way kicker Palardy – he also kicks off and punts – kicked the first of his three field goals for a quick 3-0 lead. On the drive, South Carolina reserve defensive back Kadetrix Marcus was flagged for “targeting” a Tennessee receiver and ejected from the game.
Tennessee had the early field-position advantage with the first five possessions starting at the Vols’ 35, 47, 45, 45 and 46. Yet, they only had three points to show for the opportunities.
By contrast, South Carolina began drives at its 9, 25, 11, 19 and 5. The Vols’ defense was harassing Shaw and thwarting the Gamecocks at every turn.
Until that is, the first quarter turned into the second.
On the drive that started at South Carolina’s 5, the Shaw needed only three plays and one minute to navigate the long-distance, 95-yard scoring drive. He connected with Damiere Byrd on a 76-yard bomb that silenced the boisterous crowd 10 seconds into the second quarter.
The Vols then methodically marched 75 yards in 10 plays and Worley, who is from Rock Hill, S.C., hit Howard on a 6-yard strike in the end zone, giving Tennessee a 10-7 advantage.
A personal foul facemask penalty on South Carolina defensive star Jadeveon Clowney, tacked on to a no-gain rush by Neal, pushed the ball to the Gamecocks’ 6 and two plays later the Worley-to-Howard duo gave the Vols the lead.
Later, Worley directed a 61-yard, seven-play drive and Neal capped it by darting 6 yards untouched to paydirt. Suddenly the Vols had a 17-7 cushion.
South Carolina 0 7 14 0 – 21
Tennessee 3 14 0 6 – 23
TN –FG Michael Palardy 37, 9:14
SC – Damiere Byrd 76 pass from Connor Shaw (Elliott Fry kick), 14:50
TN – Alton Howard 6 pass from Justin Worley (Palardy kick), 10:12
TN – Raijon Neal 5 run (Palardy kick), 6:11
SC – Mike Davis 21 run (Fry kick), 9:46
SC – Shaw 1 run (Fry kick), 2:50
TN – FG Palardy 33¸ 10:11
TN – FG Palardy 19, 0:00
ATT – 95,736
First Downs 17 18
Rushes-Yards 42-218 41-146
Passing Yards 166 179
Com.-Att.-Int. 8-22-1 19-36-0
Total Yards 64-384 77-325
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 0-0
Punts.-Avg. 8-36.2 8-40.4
Penalties-Yds. 9-84 5-40
RUSHING — South Carolina: Mike Davis 21-137, Connor Shaw 19-78, Dylan Thompson 1-6, Team 1-minus 3; Tennessee: Rajion Neal 24-77, Marlin Lane 12-55, Justin Worley 1-minus 1.
PASSING — South Carolina: Shaw 7-21-1-161, Thompson 1-1-0-5; Tennessee: Worley 19-34-0-179.
RECEIVING — South Carolina: Damiere Byrd 4-121, Rory Anderson 1-25, Make Davis 2-16, Nick Jones 1-4; Tennessee: Marquez North 3-102, Alton Howard 8-33, Brendan Downs 3-20, Neal 2-minus 9.
TACKLES (UA-A) – South Carolina: Brison Williams 4-4 8, T.J. Holloman 4-3 7, Skai Moore 3-3 6, Marcquis Roberts 3-3 6; Tennessee: A.J. Johnson 6-2 8, Daniel McCullers 5-1 6, JaRon Toney 4-1 5, Corey Miller 3-2 5.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)