Tennessee used a strong running game and the defense kept South Carolina in check to put an exclamation point on Champions Weekend.
The Vols captured a 41-20 victory over South Carolina in SEC action on Saturday night inside a soldout Neyland Stadium. With the win, Tennessee improved to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the SEC.
The Vol offense got a spark from the trio of running backs with Jaylen Wright leading the way with 123 yards and a score. Jabari Small added 59 yards and Dylan Sampson had 49 yards on the ground.
“Our O-line, they create movement,” Wright said on what made the run game so effective on Saturday night. “That’s the most important thing. Moving the line of scrimmage so that the running backs can see them (holes) and hit them.”
The offensive line received a big boost on Saturday as Cooper Mays returned to the lineup.
“Coop being back this week was absolutely critical for us to be our best,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said. “Ollie [Lane] did a good job sliding out to the left; Gerald [Mincey] back at right. We were efficient; we were not perfect, but thick double teams, running backs did a good job running hard. We pushed the pile; plays that are twos went for four. Those are big hidden yardages in the way that the game is played at the end of the set of downs.”
“Coop, his experience, his athleticism [and] his ability to communicate at a really high level, all positives for us to go play our best.”
Along with the offensive line, the defensive front kept USC mostly in check.
“I said that this was going to be a line-of-scrimmage game early in the week, challenged them all week long, had to own it on both sides,” Heupel said. Felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the night. Relentless effort, energy, technique, fundamentals; our d-line did a great job against the run [and] harassed the quarterback all night long. He was throwing out of a well [and] he was on the move. They did an unbelievable job, and we did a good job matching out on the perimeter defensively.”
“Offensively, for a lot of the evening, super efficient, created some big explosive plays, good enough in our protections to push the ball down the football field, too, so all in all, the line of scrimmage [I was] pretty pleased with until we look at the tape, I’m sure.”
A year after Tennessee saw the Gamecocks pick apart the secondary and crush the Vols playoff hopes, the Tennessee defense held quarterback Spencer Rattler to just 169 yards passing and no touchdowns. The Vols sacked Rattler six times with James Pearce tallying two sacks.
“I think everybody took it personally, as an entire program,” Heupel said when asked if the defensive backs took the game personally. “Our fans did too. Certainly on the defensive side of the ball too.”
Tennessee set the tone early as Wright scored on a 42-yard touchdown to cap a quick nine-play drive.
After South Carolina scored on its next two possessions to take a 10-7 lead, Tennessee answered a minute and a half later. Squirrel White made an incredible catch despite obvious pass interference to set up the Vols in South Carolina territory, and Small scored on a two-yard run to give Tennessee a 14-10 lead after a quarter of play.
Charles Campbell added a 24-yard field goal midway through the second.
The second quarter was marred by a lower-body injury to Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy – who was carted off the field.
“Hate what happened to Bru,” Heupel said. “We will have more of an update tomorrow or Monday I’m sure, but everyone saw it was a lower-body injury that did not look good. There is nobody better than him. Great teammate, great leader, tough as they come, works extremely hard to be his best, and makes sure his teammates do that, too. Hate it for him.”
After the injury, it took a few drives to shake off the effects of seeing the injury, but Kamal Hadden gave Tennessee the momentum with a pick-six in the final minute of the half.
“Offensively there for a series or two, there were a couple of series where we struggled,” Heupel said. “Defensively, they have to go back on the field; they do a great job getting them in a long-yard situation. The pick-six was a huge momentum swing.”
“Obviously, we gave them the football back at the 50-yard line, which is not playing smart football. We have to be a lot better there, but defensively, up front, it goes and changes the way the game is played and gets us off the field there. Huge play by Kamal [Hadden], but that happens because of what has been going on up front, too. Quarterback is uncomfortable and ready to get the ball out of his hands.”
Tennessee led 24-10 at the half.
The Vols pushed the lead to 31-10 early in the third quarter as Joe Milton III found Jacob Warren for a six-yard touchdown.
South Carolina, however, answered on the next offensive possession as Mario Anderson rumbled 75 yards for a touchdown.
The teams traded field goals early in the fourth, but Tennessee left no doubt with four minutes to play as Dylan Sampson scored on a six-yard run to cap a nine-play drive.
Milton III was 21-of-32 for 239 yards, while White had nine catches for 104 yards.
“He’s a young player, relatively speaking, that just continues to get better and that’s extremely confident and comfortable out there. He operates extremely efficiently,” Heupel said of White postgame. “Milton III has great confidence in him. He made a big-time competitive play on the deep ball early in the first quarter. He gets us going. He just did an unbelievable job.”
Tennessee will have a bye week before returning to action on October 14 as Texas A&M will come to Neyland Stadium.
“We’re a football team that needs to get healthy,” Heupel said. “I usually get the question ‘is it coming at the right time?’ For us, right now, I would say it’s coming at the right time. We need to get healthy, and we’ve got some young guys that’ve got to continue to grow, but we’ve got to grow as a football team.”
“Good teams continue to get better throughout the course of the season. We’ve got to play smarter football. Our margins just aren’t big enough to not do that. We’re in control of that. It starts with coaches. It starts with me. It starts with our assistant coaches, and our players have to soak it up too.”