KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The decision would have been second-guessed until the end of time. Maybe South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier knew the potential scrutiny that awaited. Maybe it persuaded Spurrier to play it safe.
Facing fourth-and-2 from his team’s 30-yard line with just less than three minutes left, clinging to a one-point lead at Tennessee, the Head Ball Coach thought about risking it all.
“My mindset was, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s get it,’ ” sophomore running back Mike Davis said.
Instead, Spurrier went against his legendary gut. South Carolina punted, giving Tennessee its third chance to drive for a game-winning field goal inside the final eight minutes. Finally, the Volunteers took advantage.
Tennessee kicker Michael Palardy booted a 19-yard field goal with three seconds left, handing No. 11 South Carolina a devastating 23-21 loss on the game’s final play. Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC East) desperately wanted a signature win in its first season under new coach Butch Jones. At the end of a 10-play drive that lasted 2:48, the relief spilled into celebration.
Tennessee players rushed the field, a sea of orange spilling from the home team’s sideline as the crowd of 95,736 offered their approval.
“Mike and I were in line at dinner (Friday) night, and I looked at him because he told me he was going to have the game winner at Georgia,” the Volunteers’ Jones said. “I looked at him this time and said, ‘You’ve got the game winner tomorrow, right?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I got you, Coach.’ He’s performing exceptionally well for us.”
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC East), and a three-game winning streak against Tennessee. With a win, they could have taken advantage of losses by Florida and Georgia on Saturday.
Spurrier was denied his 15th win against Tennessee, the team he grew up cheering. A win would’ve given him a winning record at Neyland Stadium.
Instead, the HBC only had regret.
Spurrier was forced to burn two timeouts after Tennessee gave a different defensive look than he expected. With how the Vols’ defense lined up, the play called on the sideline wouldn’t have worked. Rather than gamble, USC punted.
“Looking back, I always tell myself to go for those,” Spurrier said. “You always look stupid if you leave them on the 30-yard line, but our defense was playing well.”
The Gamecocks’ defense had already stared down two short fields in the fourth quarter, dominating the Vols’ offense on the two series before their game-winning drive. Spurrier said his confidence in the defense played into the decision to punt. He didn’t expect what happened next.
Tennessee began its drive at the 35-yard line. Early on, the possession didn’t look promising. The Vols faced third-and-10 when quarterback Justin Worley sent up a jump ball with the pocket collapsing. His prayer was answered with freshman receiver Marquez North’s 39-yard reception, putting the Vols in field-goal range.
“He closed his eyes,” defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said of Worley. “I was looking at him in his face. It was just a great throw and catch.”
Tennessee led 17-7 at halftime, its largest lead at intermission against a ranked opponent since Oct. 31, 2009. The Vols beat USC that night as well. It looked like the Gamecocks would avoid the upset this time.
USC took a 21-17 lead on quarterback Connor Shaw’s 1-yard touchdown run with 2:50 left in the third quarter. Shaw had perhaps his worst day as a passer this season, but he finished with 78 rushing yards on 18 carries. He did not return from a knee injury late in the fourth quarter.
The injury’s severity was not immediately known after the game.
“The trainer called it a sprained knee,” Spurrier said. “I think he sort of got tackled on it, and it collapsed under him a little bit, he said. How serious, they’ll have to wait and evaluate. So, they’re calling it a sprained knee right now.”
USC had success running the football, finishing with 218 rushing yards on 42 carries (5.2 yards per carry). Davis had another stellar game, finishing with 137 yards on 21 carries including a 21-yard touchdown run. It was Davis’ 10th touchdown of the season. He’s had at least one touchdown in each of USC’s seven games, and it was his sixth 100-yard game this season.
But, needing two more yards, Davis didn’t get a chance.
“We called the second (timeout), and we ended up punting, and I’m just like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ” Davis said. “… Like I said, whatever the coaches call, I’m all for it. But, if it’s fourth-and-2 and the coaches want to punt it, then that’s what we have to go for.”