Gamecocks fall to Tennessee 31-27 in season opener

Gamecocks fall to Tennessee 31-27 in season opener
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano sneaks into the end zone for a touchdown. (Source: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina had high hopes of starting off the season with a big win over a top 25 team.

However, when the Volunteers and Gamecocks get together, it’s usually a close game and this one was no different. Unfortunately for Will Muschamp’s squad, a pair of turnovers and a special teams miscue would be the difference as No. 16 Tennessee holds off Carolina 31-27.

Carolina gets on the board first to start the game. In their opening drive, Collin Hill helped Carolina move the ball down the field. However, it was Kevin Harris who would punctuate the drive with a 3-yard run to give the Gamecocks a 7-0 lead with 9:59 left in the quarter.

Tennessee quickly responded. The Vols came up with two big plays -- a one-handed catch by Brandon Johnson for 30 yards and a flea-flicker pass to Eric Gray that went for 31 yards -- to get into scoring position. Jarrett Guarantano followed that with a 1-yard sneak to tie things up 7-7.

Jeremy Pruitt’s defense got involved in the second quarter and gave Tennessee their first lead of the game. Shi Smith couldn’t come with a pass from Hill, Henry To’o To’o snagged the deflection and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown making it 14-7 with 13:22 left in the half.

However, the second quarter saw little success for each team. Combined, the Gamecocks and Vols recorded 32 total yards in the quarter. Carolina finished the half with 93 yards in the half.

“Really couldn’t just get the ball moving,” Hill said. “We couldn’t move the sticks much and...when I think about the first half and putting our defense out there for a while, you’ve got to play complementary football. Got to minimize negative plays and can’t really have three and outs.”

Tennessee opened the second with a run-heavy drive to move the ball down the field. That drive was capped by Gray on a 12-yard run to push Tennessee ahead 21-7 with 12:28 left in the third.

Carolina wouldn’t wait long to answer. Thanks to two big plays, Carolina found the end zone again. A 42-yard reception by Xavier Legette would be followed by a 29-yard touchdown pass from Hill to Smith making it 21-14 with 10:27 left in the third.

Smith finished with 10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.

“We came in all week talking about it,” Smith said about being the focal point of the Gamecocks' passing game on Saturday. “We just get me the ball early and just let me get started.”

Carolina tied it up on their next drive. The series goes 10 plays and 71 yards with Hill sneaking into the end zone on a 1-yard run with 4:32 left in the period.

“In the second half, we started to stretch the field vertically more and I think that helped open things up for us more,” Hill explained. “Pass [protection] was good, I thought. Thought it was good all night.”

Hill was 25-of-39 passing for 290 yards with a passing touchdown and a rushing touchdown. He also had an interception and a fumble.

With 2:18 to go, Tennessee regains the lead. Despite a long drive, Carolina holds Tennessee to just a 27-yard field goal by Brent Cimaglia and the Vols would take a 24-21 lead.

Following a 35-yard field goal by Parker White to tie the game up for Carolina, Tennessee answered.

The Vols come up with two explosive plays to finish their 4-play drive. Guarantano found Josh Palmer in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown pass and the Vols regained the lead for the third time 31-24 with 9:35 to go.

White added his second field goal of the night from 45 yards out, but Carolina wasn’t able to add to their point total despite having the ball for a majority of the fourth quarter.

With less than two minutes left, the Gamecocks had hopes of getting the ball back and driving down the field to win the game. However, a Tennessee punt with less than 90 seconds to go touched Cam Smith and the Vols recovered it to seal the game.

South Carolina falls to 0-1 on the year while Tennessee has now won seven straight games dating back to last season.

The Gamecocks will travel to No. 5 Florida next week.

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