Gamecocks was an obvious adventure, to say the least. But with the rock slide on I-40 last week already causing an inconvenient routing adjustment, Steve Spurrier and the Cocks were well aware of the 1-13 USC record in Knoxville, the recent controversial Tennessee loss by 2 points against then #1 Alabama, a Tennessee defense even more stout than the highly ranked USC defense, a Stephen Garcia led offense that is ranked 8th in the conference and 91st nationally and one of the lowest "red zone" efficiencies in the SEC. Yes you get the idea, the route to victory and keeping a promising season alive was lined with additional obstacles, road blocks, caution signals and hazards. Well the horror of this night was evident when the Vols returned to the field wearing black jerseys and orange pants, to denote the Halloween theme and the threat of ghost, goblins and nightmares.
The game started with USC winning the coin toss and the election to take the ball first. With a drive moving and appearing to move the chains, TE Justin Cunningham fumbled his first reception, a first down catch, following a powerful hit which provided Head Coach Lane Kiffin and the Vols their first offensive series from the USC 43, 2 plays later a UT touchdown. On the ensuing possession, Kenny Miles fumbled on second down at the USC 27 yard line, after a six yard gain. It took the Vols 8 plays, but again Vols score a touchdown. On the fourth possession, Garcia chose to run the ball and stick his head in on a large gain, rather than go down and cover up, another hat on the ball causes the third first half fumble and gives the ball back to the Rocky Top Goblins who score ten plays later on fourth and two. The Gamecocks could only muster middle of the field movement after that and had to settle for a 47 yard field goal, Spencer Lanning's career long. With three fumbles in USC territory resulting in 3 touchdowns the Gamecocks were at best driving a bang up jalopy to the locker room, at the half. Even when Stephon Gilmore caused a fumble on the Vol QB, Jonathan Crompton in the first quarter, the team from South Carolina found the football to be like a ghost, "now you see it, now you don't". USC DB Shaq Wilson extended to retrieve the ball, in what appeared to be an easy turnover recovery, saw the ball disappear and ended up under the sacked and fumbling Crompton.
The second half started with a Vols three and out possession, and USC mounted a drive that could only get inside the red zone and had to settle for another Lanning field goal. But, Tennessee quickly regroups and sustains it's longest touchdown drive of the evening with a 56 yard 5 play scoring attack fueled by the running of Montario Hardesty, who had a highlight night with 121 yards on 23 carries. With score 28-6, the Gamecocks found a big play drive, going 77 yards in 3 plays with a 23 yard run by Miles and a 23 catch by Weslye Saunders. The drive was capped with a 31 yard scoring strike to Moe Brown. The drive would be the last thing to cheer about for the Cocks. Any USC momentum shift and comeback was basically chased from the stadium when Garcia shot a high bullet on a 5 yard dump off to Miles that was intercepted by Vol LB Greg King. With both defenses offering grit and hits, the Vols basically sealed the contest with 4:23 to go with a 39 yard field goal. The final score was determined 31-13 Volunteers.
So what happened? On a rainy Halloween night the Black and Orange Vols released tremendous energy from the defense designed by Monte Kiffin, Defensive Coordinator. The key goons and goblins were true freshman DB, Janzen Jackson (15), senior NT Dan Williams (55), senior LB Rico McCoy (5), who caused two of the three fumbles, including 10 tackles, junior LB Savion Frazier (43), and All American Junior SS, Eric Berry (14). As always another solid rushing performance by a SEC running back against the South Carolina. Failure to wrap up and secure tackles led to a potential superlative weekend for the senior RB, Hardesty, whose churning running style led to a 5.3 yards per carry night. While the turnovers will loom as the obvious reason for the loss. It was the defensive energy early by the elder Kiffin's defense that set the short field advantage for the Vols and made the game the perceived lopsided event. My assessment of the football contest is that the aforementioned Tennessee stars were just like a "rock slide", rolling down it's terrain, destroying everything in it's path. In this case, it was the USC offense, that never had a chance to get any momentum to get up the mountain, before the orange and black rocks and boulders began to fall and roll with fierce force and from very unsuspecting angles, a characteristic of a Monte Kiffin defense.
The real nightmare for the Gamecocks may not be the ghost, ghouls and goblins of Rocky Top but the internal injuries, first downs negated by alignment and motion penalties, a 81 yard touchdown return wiped out by a slight block in the back that had nothing to do with the play, as Gilmore's return was lost to what eventually you can call a 90 yard penalty. The damage to this team is not just the loss, by the loss of Cliff Matthews for at least a week if not more with what appears to be a dislocated shoulder. While this loss does not end the season nor guarantee anything but a third loss, it exposes the level of challenge and the prospects of another season ending crash of nationally ranked season that has the team projected as the underdog in its final 4 games of the season, where only one of those teams is ranked. Remember the Vols entered this game displaying a 3-4 record. Easily making them the best 3-4, now 4-4, team in the country. With there remaining schedule revealing teams of less stature that South Carolina, Tennessee looks prime for a fantastic finish, while the Cocks look for answers to an accident proned offense and a battered defense.
The good news for USC, the freshman and younger players on this team are confident that the engine is still good, that the vehicle can be repaired in a week and will be ready to make the next leg of this journey to complete the season on a, often allusive and seemingly improbable, winning note against the toughest part of the season's journey. Saturday's nightmare collision with the Vols presented tremendous damage to the South Carolina unit, but with only one player loss and only one game decided the season still has hope, but there is an obvious apprehension about the successful future of what appears to be talented team heading in the wrong direction.
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