KNOXVILLE — A year after suffering its biggest defensive embarrassment in 90 football seasons as a Southeastern Conference member, Tennessee used a defensive touchdown to gain a measure of revenge.
The Volunteers used their share of offense, too.
Tennessee may never completely forget last November’s 63-38 loss at South Carolina, but the No. 21 Vols created a new and more pleasing memory Saturday night with a 41-20 downing of the Gamecocks before 101,915 inside Neyland Stadium. The Vols won their 12th consecutive game in Neyland to improve to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in SEC play entering their lone open week of the season.
“I think everybody took last year personally as a program,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Our fans did, and certainly on the defensive side, too. Our ability to get off the field early in the game was critical.”
The Vols also improved to 2-0 all-time in their “dark mode” combination of black helmets, black jerseys and black pants, having routed Kentucky 44-6 last October in the same uniform.
“I loved the effort from our guys throughout the course of the game,” Heupel said. “We started fast and we didn’t play perfect, but we reset and answered the bell each round with each unit and continued to compete hard.”
South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler, who threw for 438 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in last season’s slaughter, was held to 169 yards Saturday and was intercepted with 47 seconds remaining before halftime by Kamal Hadden, who raced 28 yards for a touchdown. Rattler was pressured by edge rusher James Pearce and rushed the throw that sailed over tight end Hunter Salmon and into the arms of Hadden, who had clear sailing to the end zone.
In addition to his interception, Rattler was sacked six times.
“It was like their Super Bowl tonight,” Rattler said. “Congrats to them.”
Hadden’s score enabled Tennessee to take a 24-10 lead into the break, and the Vols opened the second half with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Joe Milton III to tight end Jacob Warren for a 31-10 advantage. The Vols surrendered a 75-yard touchdown run to Mario Anderson on the ensuing play from scrimmage, but a 33-yard Charles Campbell field goal with 12:42 remaining in the contest restored Tennessee’s three-score advantage at 34-17.
“The pick-six was a huge momentum swing,” Heupel said. “We started the third quarter fast, but we didn’t finish it the way we wanted to. At the end of the game, we were able to punch another one in, and we kicked a field goal on the possession before that.
“We were more efficient and more consistent than a few weeks ago.”
Milton completed 21 of 32 passes for 239 yards with one touchdown for an offense that totaled 477 yards, but he endured the first two-interception game of his Tennessee career. The Vols entered Saturday as the SEC’s leading rushing team with 229.5 yards a game and amassed 238 against the Gamecocks on 40 rushes.
Junior running back Jaylen Wright led Tennessee with 16 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown, his third 100-yard game of the season.
“We said that this was going to be a line of scrimmage game early in the week,” Heupel said. “We challenged them on that all week long and that we had to own it on both sides, and I felt like we controlled the line of scrimmage for most of the night. For a lot of the evening, we were super efficient and created some big, explosive plays, and we were good enough in our protections to push the ball down the football field, too.”
Said Wright: “Our O-line created movement, and that’s the most important thing.”
Tennessee took its opening possession 94 yards in nine plays, reaching the end zone on Wright’s 42-yard run. Wright had four carries for 58 yards on the first drive, while Milton was 4-for-4 passing for 31 yards.
After a 36-yard field goal by Mitch Jeter pulled the Gamecocks within 7-3, Milton was intercepted on a third-and-10 pass by free safety DQ Smith, who returned the miscue 16 yards to the Tennessee 29. The Gamecocks (2-3, 1-2) needed six plays to reach the end zone, with Rattler running it in from 6 yards out for a 10-7 lead with 2:03 left in the first quarter.
A 51-yard pass from Milton to Squirrel White, who reached back to make the snag at South Carolina’s 3, set up Jabari Small’s 2-yard touchdown run that put Tennessee back up 14-10 just 81 seconds after the Vols had fallen behind.
The second quarter opened with South Carolina punter Kai Kroeger throwing to a wide-open Xavier Legette to the Tennessee 40, but the Vols stiffened defensively and forced a turnover on downs. A 37-yard run by Dylan Sampson to the South Carolina 24 put Tennessee in position to take a two-possession lead, but the Vols had to settle on Campbell’s 24-yard field goal and a 17-10 advantage with 8:50 before halftime.
“Our defense played its heart out tonight,” Milton said. “That’s all we can ask for as an offense, guys who have your back. The defense played as a whole tonight, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].