KNOXVILLE – Butch Jones began the week at Bristol Motor Speedway and ended it in Victory Lane after all but wrecking No. 11 South Carolina’s SEC title hopes.
Jones’ Tennessee Volunteers drove 63 yards for Michael Palardy’s game-winning 19-yard field goal on the final play of a signature win that, at least in the Rocky Top-singing aftermath, had a changing-of-the-guard vibe.
Tennessee appears to be on a fast-track turnaround that could be complete long before battling Virginia Tech in Bristol in front of a record crowd sure to help steer five-star recruits the Volunteers’ way the next three years.
And as the endgame in Saturday’s 23-21 victory helped underscore, Jones did well with his first recruiting class at UT. True freshman Marquez North made an exceptional left-handed, contested 39-yard catch at the South Carolina 26-yard line to convert a third-and-10 with 2:23 left, and four Marlin Lane rushes later, Palardy was lining up a chip shot to seal UT’s first win against a ranked opponent since Lane Kiffin’s Vols beat South Carolina in 2009.
“Great day to be a Vol,” Jones said. “I thought our team showed some resiliency. We found a way to win and we talk about play winning football. ... I'm just excited for our seniors, our fans.”
Jones’ first SEC triumph with Tennessee (1-2, 4-3) came against Steve Spurrier, whose Gamecocks (3-2, 5-2) looked out of sorts at times while trying to nurse a 21-17 lead for the final 17-plus minutes, particularly after quarterback Connor Shaw left the game with a knee injury with five minutes remaining.
Meanwhile, Jones was pushing all the right buttons. With three timeouts in his pocket, he punted on fourth-and-4 from the South Carolina 49 with 3:22 remaining and the Vols trailing, 21-20. It wasn’t a popular move with most of the 95,736 fans in attendance, nor many of the Vols.
“Initially, I was like what are we doing,” UT defensive lineman Marlon Walls said. “But I thought about it, and Coach Jones came over to us and said that, ‘We trust our defense. We know you all will get us the ball back.’
“When you have a person like that, you don't want to let them down. We were really excited to know that Coach actually believed in us like that.”
Spurrier didn’t trust his defense with similar conviction. Yes, he did decide to punt on fourth-and-2 at the USC 26 some 30 seconds later, but not until lining up his offense twice out of timeouts while considering going for it.
It would’ve been one of the more memorable gambles in his storied play-calling career. As it turned out, the Gamecocks simply squandered two of their three timeouts in a bizarre three-and-out that began with UT using all three of its timeouts.
“We were thinking about going for it,” Spurrier said. “We went up there and if it looked good we were thinking about going for it. And then the second time, they actually changed their defense a little bit. We thought we had a little bit of a hole there and we had a different play called. Looking back I always tell myself to go for those, but you look stupid if you leave them on the 30-yard line.
“And our defense was playing well. It went to third-and-10 there and they threw up a jump ball on us and their kid made a heck of a catch, one hand.”
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said he likes his chances throwing to the 6-foot-4, 215-pound North.
“Having the big body like he has and the athletic ability he has,” Worley said, “you have to have confidence in being able to throw the ball in one-on-one situations.”
Worley didn’t excite the Gamecocks – and many other college programs – despite putting up huge numbers in high school in Rock Hill, S.C. Worley actually made his first career start against South Carolina in 2011.
He’s finally experienced now, and gaining confidence by the snap under the impressive coaching received since Jones and his staff’s arrival.
Worley didn’t turn the ball over and made plays when it mattered. He was 19-of-34 passing for 179 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
Worley won’t be confused with the mobile Shaw, but his 11-yard scramble to move the chains on third-and-11 was the pivotal play on a drive that Palardy capped with a 33-yard field goal to cut South Carolina’s lead to 21-20 with 10:11 remaining.
Worley was also horse-collared on the scramble, which advanced the ball an additional 15 yards to the Tennessee 42. Two plays later, he connected with North on a 48-yard pass.
“I tell you what, he (Worley) is playing with a lot of confidence and he's gritty,” Jones said. “He's playing with a lot of grit right now.”
South Carolina’s defense, led by explosive defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, caused rough sledding much of the afternoon. But execution and a fast tempo helped engineer two touchdown drives in the second quarter which gave Tennessee a 17-7 halftime lead.
The Vols’ brisk pace helped put the Gamecocks defense on its heels, especially when Lane and Rajion Neal combined for 50 yards on five rushes on a TD march that Neal capped from five yards out for the 10-point lead with 6:11 left in the first half.
The Vols obviously didn’t spend an off week wallowing in self-pity after fumbling away a potential overtime upset of Georgia on Oct. 5.
“They played well,” Spurrier said. “They out-played us and they out-coached us.”
Vols seniors such as Neal (24 carries, 77 yards rushing) and Walls (2 1/2 sacks) were visibly moved by the quality win that was a long time coming. Top-25 teams had won 19 straight against UT.
“I don't really concern myself with what's going on with the past,” Jones said. “All I know is this is Team 117 and we're building our football program and getting it back.”
The Vols will take on another ranked team next week when they visit top-ranked Alabama.
“Right now, we feel like we can play with anybody,” UT tackle Tiny Richardson said. “You know, Alabama, they put on their shoes the same way we put on our shoes. So we’ve just gotta go in there with confidence … and believing we can win.”