A Similar Script
It would be easy to write something like, “It’s getting comical.”
The problem is that it isn’t.
The script: Defense gives up a bucketload of yards and big plays (>20 yards per play), putting the offense in comeback mode for the entirety of the ballgame. And when the defense does make some critical stops, either bad execution, or bad luck, snaps a possible victory back to the hands of defeat.
A Typical Tennessee Opening Half
In the first half, South Carolina scored in their first possession on a 33 yard pass play from Connor Shaw to Bruce Ellington. With their second possesion, the Gamecocks had to punt, but did so from good field position allowing the kick to go out of bounds at the Vol 13, putting Tennessee in a hole. The drive was maintained on another big play, this time on 3rd down that was a 25 yard pass to Rory Anderson.
Then after converting on a 4th down situation to keep the third possession drive alive, South Carolina after a QB sack found themselves 3rd and goal at the Tennessee 26 yard line. No problem. Another big play: a 26-yard pass play to Rory Anderson for a TD. On the next possession, the Gamecocks scored again, this time a 28-yard run by Marcus Lattimore immediately following a 19-yard pass completion to Justice Cunningham.
The only thing that slowed South Carolina on their next possession was a gruesome, season-ending (career-ending?) knee injury to RB Marcus Lattimore. But on the next possession – the last of the first half, South Carolina methodically marched down the field to the Vol 1 yard line with less than a minute in the half. Defensive stop, then a time out. Another defensive stop, then another time out. But on the third try, QB Shaw, with a triple-receiver set to the right, tiptoed untouched into the end zone on a naked bootleg / option of sorts to the left.
Gamecocks 28 Vols 14 at the half. Once again, a conference opponent had completely shredded the Tennessee defense to put the Big Orange offense in a hole from which they couldn’t recover.
Overshadowed was the exceptional receiving play by Vol WR Zach Rogers who caught three Tyler Bray passes, two for TDs (23 and 37 yards). Yes, that Zach Rogers, who has become Tennessee’s best and most reliable wide receiver.
A Typical Tennessee Closing Half
The second half eventually sucked you in, only to leave you disappointed at the end once again.
On the first play of the second half, Tennessee was called for sideline interference (how much more bizarre can this whole thing going to get?), but South Carolina got nowhere. Tennessee did on the following possession, when Tyler Bray hit Vincent Dallas for a 61-yard TD pass play, aided by the Gamecock defender falling down just before Dallas caught the home-run pass. At 28-21 Gamecocks, you asked yourself, “When is this defense going to make a stop to give the Vols’ offense a chance?”
That was not now, but would come later.
After both teams traded three-and-outs, South Carolina put together one of those grind-it-out drives: 12 plays and 80 yards, capped by yet another big play when Ace Sanders hauled in a Shaw pass for a 24-yard TD play.
Once again down 14 points, the Vols offense came back to make a game of it. The first play of the final quarter featured Pig Howard the lone Volunteer in the backfield. Taking the snap in the shotgun, Pig rolled right then threw a perfect pass to TE Mychal Rivera for a Tennessee touchdown.
But down 28-35, the Sal Sunseri defense once again couldn’t stop Steve Spurrier’s offense. Fueled by a 45-yard pass play to Justice Cunningham, Herman Lathers – 15 tackles (13 solo) on the afternoon — sacked Connor Shaw, forcing the Gamecocks to settle for a 36-yard field goal.
Now down by 10 points, the Vols used the quick-strike method, running only four plays to score a TD to get Tennessee within three at 38-35, the last two plays ate up half the field — a 27-yard pass play to Rivera followed by Zach Rogers’ third TD reception of the afternoon (22 yards).
Nearing the Red Zone, South Carolina opted to go for it on a 4th down and 4 yards. Great pressure by the Vols’ defensive front forced Shaw to throw a floater into midfield, but this one was intercepted by Herman Lathers, capping the big man’s best game of his season with a little less than five minutes remaining in the game.
It was now or never for Tyler Bray, for Tennessee, and perhaps even for Derek Dooley.
Starting from the 19 yard line, Bray hit Rogers for 20, then for 10 more. Then to Mariln Lane for 6.Tyler Bray was dealing, playing perhaps the best game of his career: 300++ yards, 4 TDs, and 0 INTs.
Tennessee was actually going to make a heroic comeback and win against a Top 20 team? On the road?
Then, two more first downs — a 7-yard pass to Rogers followed by Marlin Lane running for 19 more to get Tennessee to the Gamecock 19 yard line.
All afternoon, the Tennessee offensive line had kept All-World DE Jadeveon Clowney from getting a sniff of the Vols’ backfield. But big-time players make big-time plays when the game is on the line. That’s what they do.
With Bray in the pocket, and visually finding his receiver over the middle, Clowney blew by Tiny Richardson for the first time all day. After No. 7 hit No. 8, the ball lay on the ground just like it did earlier in Athens. It rolled around the feet of Richardson, but a garnet shirt fell on it.
But Tennessee had all of its timeouts left. After two plays, the Vols had taken two of the three. Then on third down and just a second under a minute left, Shaw for some reason headed for the left sideline where Derek Dooley was standing on his now-signature crutches. Shaw stepped out of bounds — nearly taking out the Young Ball coach — stopping the clock with 0:47. But for some reason, Dooley called a time out.
Not that it mattered — Tennessee got the ball back on a punt, after which Bray was sacked and then intercepted on a near-last-second desparation pass. But the wasted timeout seemed so emblamatic of Dooley’s stint as the wearer of the orange pants in this suffering family.
A three-point loss. There was no moral victory to be had. Tennessee had used up its allotment long ago.
Will this be the last game for which Derek Dooley is Tennessee’s head coach?
I don’t know, and neither do most people who say that they do. But one thing is for certain: you cannot win in this league when your defense gives up over 500 yards in total offense.
The lack of a consistent defensive effort is just the latest reason that Tennessee is 0-15 against ranked teams in three seasons.
But perhaps more damning is that the Vols are sitting at an 0-5 SEC mark for the third season in a row.
Only Vanderbilt has ever matched that level of ineptitude.