COLUMBIA, S.C. – For about 59 minutes on Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium, Tennessee made South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney a non-factor.
But Clowney’s lone sack of the game changed everything.
Clowney forced a fumble with a blind-side hit on Tennessee’s Tyler Bray with barely a minute to go, spoiling the Vols’ chance for an upset on the road and securing a 38-35 victory for No. 17 South Carolina.
Clowney’s last-minute play also spoiled a career day by Zach Rogers, who finished with three touchdowns and 107 yards on six catches.
Rogers’ last touchdown – one in which he managed to drag his back foot in-bounds to secure the catch – pulled the Vols within three points midway through the fourth quarter.
And Tennessee’s defense, which gave up 515 yards of total offense, managed to come through with a stop giving the Vols a chance to tie with a field goal or take the lead for the first time all day.
But, as happened in a loss at Georgia, the Vols’ late opportunity turned into another tough loss.
“That was another tough finish,” UT head coach Derek Dooley said. “It was a great football game and I am proud of my team for the resiliency that they showed. We gave up a lot of big points. It’s the same old song and dance in the SEC games, but we had a chance to win. They made a great play, got the ball out and turned it over, so all you can do is move on.
“We didn’t really accomplish what we wanted to against these SEC top teams but we have to turn the page. There is a lot at stake down the stretch and we could still have a really good season.”
Until Clowney’s sack, Tennessee had done a great job securing the football – and limiting the Gamecocks’ fierce pass rush.
Bray, who finished 27-of-43 passing for 368 yards and four touchdowns, and he helped the Vols rally for a chance late after trailing 28-14 at halftime.
The Vols also trailed by 14 points after Ace Sanders’ 24-yard touchdown reception in third quarter, but Alton Howard’s touchdown pass to Mychal River out of the Wildcat formation clipped the lead back to seven on the first play of the fourth quarter.
South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC), which scored on four of its six full-length possessions of the first half, only managed a field goal in the final quarter. The Vols also stopped the Gamecocks on a fourth down try near the UT 30-yard line.
That was a departure from the first half, when Carolina converted a pair of fourth downs and rolled up nearly 300 yards of total offense.
Carolina’s offense suffered a major blow midway through the second quarter when star running back Marcus Lattimore was carted off the field following a traumatic injury to his right knee.
Players from both teams, including Herman Lathers and Eric Gordon, who tackled Lattimore on the play, gathered around the Gamecocks’ star as he was taken off the field.
The defeat drops Tennessee to 3-5 overall and 0-5 in SEC play heading into Saturday’s homecoming game against Troy (noon, TV: FSN).
The Vols must now win three of their final four games to secure a bowl bid.
“We have to view this as a second season,” Dooley said. “That is all you have to do. There is a lot at stake, there is a bowl at stake. The only way to claw our way out of hurting is to win the next one and that is what I am worried about.”