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Dink. Dunk. Doink: Tennessee's mistakes spoil upset special

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In a hostile environment at South Carolina, Tennessee played well enough to win Saturday night until it didn’t.

Truisms are self-evident for a reason, right?

The Vols jumped out to a 21-9 lead over the Gamecocks, as their much-maligned offensive staff dialed up an early creative gameplan full off quick throws, misdirection and zone runs. They scored their first opening quarter offensive touchdown all season, were efficient against one of the stingiest 3rd down defenses in the country and generated some running room behind a rag-tag offensive line.

For much of a chilly night in Columbia, Tennessee controlled the game.

“Offensively, I thought we played well enough to win the game,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said.


They didn’t.

South Carolina escaped with a 27-24 squeaker, as the Vols went dink, dunk and doink in the fourth quarter with a slew of self-inflicted woes spoiling an upset special.

“The team that made the fewest mistakes won,” Pruitt said.

“This loss falls on everybody in that locker room, me most of all."

It’s probably a stretch to say the Vols *should’ve won* Saturday, but they certainly gave themselves a great chance to collect their second SEC road win of the season.

A week after getting knocked out of the Alabama game, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was mostly efficient, completing 27 of 39 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns. Marquez Callaway (9 catches for 86 yards) was reintegrated into the gameplan and some creative wrinkles (Carlin Fils-Aime's touches, Wild-Cat, tempo) kept South Carolina’s defense totally off balance.

And yet, general sloppiness and a lack of discipline was as much of a theme as the team’s new-look offense. That slim margin for error that's always being talked about? It was on full display Saturday night in Williams-Brice Stadium.

The Vols had nine penalties — eight on offense including five false starts, a substitution infraction and two unsportsmanlike flags. They also had a couple drops, some air-mailed throws and poor clock management.

It's sad and tired story. But the same one.

“That’s us,” offensive lineman Drew Richmond said.

“We beat us.”

“We know we killed ourselves,” tight end Eli Wolf added.

Tennessee isn't good enough to hand South Carolina 15 yards for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty just before halftime. Even with its third down success Saturday, Tennessee isn't good enough to overcome Callaway's boneheaded penalty that stalled a touchdown drive. The Vols definitely aren't good enough to overcome getting gashed on the ground (240 yards) by a team that had displayed zero ability to run the ball all year.

"Right now, we have to do things exactly right," Pruitt said.

"And we’re not doing it every snap. For sure.”

The Vols legitimately had some real highs in the loss — namely a revived rushing attack, some interesting offensive wrinkles and lots of YAC from its group of wideouts and ‘backs — but the low lows proved too much to overcome against a South Carolina team desperate for a win.

So now, Tennessee is looking at the real possibility it might be home for the holidays for the second straight December.

I'd be remiss to not note that the Vols certainly seemed screwed on the goal line fumble that changed the game, but they also failed to adequately respond after the missed call. Pruitt should've called a timeout there. Also, while hindsight is always 20:20 in these situations, the decision not to try and get points at the end of the first half proved costly in the end, too.

In the end, it was a team loss Saturday. The Vols dinked and dunked their way to a potential upset, but Yosemite Sam reared its foot-shooting ways again and their postseason hopes remain dicey heading into November. It was a gut-punching loss, and Tennessee's head coach knew that as well as anyone.

"The guys in that locker room are busting their tail to do it the right way," Pruitt said.

"They practice hard. We wouldn't let them do it any other way. ... But at the end of the day, you get measured by how yo play on Saturdays, and we played some good football today but we didn't finish. We made mistakes and they took advantage."