These things are written so that you may know …
The Volunteers are no longer listless, drifting through their football season. They are suddenly much tougher, full of courage, effort and fight.
The great quarterback Spencer Rattler said, in part to cover his behind, that Tennessee played as if the magnificent Saturday evening at Neyland Stadium was the Super Bowl, winner take all.
Big game for sure but not that big. Texas A&M, at Alabama, at Kentucky, at Missouri and No. 1 Georgia are waiting in line.
But this was a super show. There was moonlight, returning champions and fancy fireworks, high above and down on Shields-Watkins Field. The setting was near enough to perfect, revenge match, full house, loud and louder. Even the dreadful substitute uniforms weren’t quite as bad as I expected.
Gamecocks couldn’t keep up. Neither line was adequate. The visitors weren’t exactly overwhelmed but they took a hit, three-touchdown knockout. It was so destined.
Resiliency was the keyword. The Vols seized the early lead and gave it up. They did not flinch.
The Vols got suckered on a fake punt and long pass. Special teams had been warned in the scouting report but they didn’t believe it or weren’t looking when it mattered. Officials somehow missed a South Carolina blocking foul.
The home team prevented points and countered instead of retreating.
The Vols lost their toughest receiver, Bru McCoy, a born warrior, to a fractured and dislocated ankle. There were prayers. There were teammate tears to wipe away. Other warriors stepped up.
Tennessee yielded a stunning 75-yard touchdown run. Defenders shook their heads in disbelief. All concerned joined in the response.
There were many elements in this absolutely necessary Southeastern Conference victory. On South Carolina’s final four possessions of the first half, it ran 14 plays and gained six yards. There were three three-and-outs as the Vols took control.
“Our D-line really dominated and controlled the game,” Josh Heupel said.
The return of center Cooper Mays made a significant difference. Squirrel White had an impossible catch and eight others. Because Joe Milton lost two interceptions, throwing was somewhat restrained and the result was pass-run balance. Jaylen Wright set the pace.
The Tennessee secondary covered and tackled the best of the confusing Willie Martinez era. Behind that success was pressure on Rattler. Much maligned corner Kamal Hadden returned an interception for a touchdown.
The defensive game plan was contain the quarterback, apply the heat and sack him a dozen times. The Vols got six. James Pearce had two. The Vols held the Gamecocks to 333 yards of offense – 273 fewer than last season. Tennessee gained 477.
South Carolina was two of 14 on third downs. That is a fair measurement of how dominant was Tennessee’s defensive front. The Gamecocks failed to gain on a fourth down with inches to go.
I thought Rattler was honest when he said Tennessee did a great job schematically.
“They took away some of our best weapons.”
Top receiver Xavier Legette was an example. He caught the pass off the fake punt but only four other throws for 18 yards. Rattler seldom got outside to roam the range. There was a message in his fourth-down try. He hit a solid wall of Volunteers and was thrown back. It was a total defeat for South Carolina linemen.
Coach Shane Beamer summed up that play.
“You got to be able to get six inches on a quarterback sneak. That was very disappointing.”
Rattler netted 19 yards as a runner. He took some hard hits.
Competition with the Vols is very personal for Beamer. He got his job the same year Heupel was hired. The roster Beamer inherited was probably a bit stronger.
The coach had to call on extra politeness to say “Congratulations. They played really, really well. That was an awesome college football environment.”
There was another hurt. Many visiting recruits saw Heupel work his plan as scripted.
“Coach preached that we had to take over up front, offense and defense, to dominate the game,” Pearce said. “It was mentioned all the way up to game time.”
This was the winning edge. It appeared early.
“Coop being back was absolutely critical for us to be our best,” said Heupel. “Coop, his experience, his athleticism, his ability to communicate at a really high level, are all positives for us to go play our best.”
Questions hang over Volunteer heads. Can they do it again in two weeks, after the open date, when improving Texas A&M comes to Neyland? Can they possibly win at Alabama? The Tide has had October 21 circled since the Tennessee multitude stormed the field last year.
Can young receivers replace the crusty McCoy? Can Milton refine his play? He didn’t see the safety he hit in the numbers for one of the interceptions.
Is it possible defensive backs will again perform at a winning level when there is no revenge motivation? Several Vols were humiliated by Rattler at Columbia last November. How will they play at Kentucky or Missouri? There won’t be thousands of Vol supporters on the road.
When the Aggies come calling, there will be no way to replicate the atmosphere of Saturday night. Hendon Hooker won’t be there next time as a cheerleader. The national champions of 1998 will again be scattered to the winds.
From here on out, the Vols will be on their own.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.