Tennessee (2-6, 0-5 SEC) put up yet another valiant effort against 20th-ranked South Carolina (6-2, 4-2 SEC) Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium, but it just wasn't enough.
The Volunteers made too many mistakes, especially in critical situations, and allowed Gamecock playmakers to take away the game in the fourth quarter, 38-24.
In front of a crowd of 79,336, Tennessee went toe to toe with the SEC Eastern division-leading Gamecocks until USC quarterback Stephen Garcia scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:28 left in the game to all but end the Vols' upset bid.
"There were a lot of good things in the game today," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "But when you spit the ball out four times, three of them in your territory, one of them for a score, and then you have the sacks that we have, and then you give up three huge plays in the last two drives, you aren't going to win the game, and that was the difference in the game."
It was a back-and-forth game throughout the first half. The Vols led 3-0 after the first quarter, and the game was tied at 10 at the half.
The opening minutes of the second half put the Vols in comeback mode once again. UT quarterback Matt Simms was hit and fumbled the ball, allowing USC to recover on UT's 27-yard line. After a South Carolina touchdown put the Gamecocks on top 17-10, true freshman Tyler Bray replaced Simms under center and promptly threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown to put the Vols down 24-10.
"They came out at halftime, and it is impossible to have a worse start in the third quarter," Dooley said. "It was ridiculous."
Simms contributed two of the team's turnovers for the game. Despite having solid numbers passing — 10-of-13 for 153 yards and a touchdown — Simms was benched in favor of Bray after his second fumble of the day.
"There's nothing much I can do about getting hit in the back and the guy stripping the ball from me," Simms said. "That's one of the better defensive lines in the conference. If you get hit a lot, sometimes the ball comes out. Other than that, I thought I played really well. I didn't turn the ball over, besides those."
Bray went on to play the rest of the way for Tennessee and finished 9-of-15 for 159 yards and two touchdowns along with the interception.
Even with the Vols playing two quarterbacks, wide receiver Denarius Moore experienced a career day. The senior hauled in six passes — three from each quarterback — for 228 yards and a touchdown.
Only Kelley Washington tacked on more receiving yards in a game for Tennessee when he pulled in 256 yards against LSU in 2001.
Except for a couple of wide receiver sweeps, UT's running game was held in check by the USC defense. Tailbacks Tauren Poole and Rajion Neal combined for just 49 rushing yards on 21 carries. Wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers led the team in rushing with 49 yards on five carries.
With USC up by two touchdowns midway through the third quarter, the Vols faced a fourth-and-10 from their own 30-yard line. Punter Chad Cunningham faked the punt and ran for 25 yards down the right sideline to give the Vols a first down.
After tacking on a 15-yard late-hit penalty by USC on Cunningham, Bray hit Moore on the next play for a 30-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 24-17.
The Vols appeared to gain even more momentum after stopping the Gamecocks on the ensuing drive, but cornerback Eric Gordon muffed the punt, giving Carolina the ball at the UT 17-yard line.
The Vols defense held strong, forcing the Gamecocks to attempt a 41-yard field goal that was missed on the next to last play of the third quarter.
Thanks in large part to a 62-yard catch-and-run by Moore, the Vols tied the game 24-24 when Bray hit wide receiver Gerald Jones in the end zone with 13:17 remaining.
Two plays later, Garcia hit USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery on a curl route across the middle of the field before Jeffery outran Tennessee's secondary 70 yards for a touchdown.
"The worst that should have come from that play was a first down for 12 yards, but that's what great players do," Dooley said of the play, which put the Gamecocks ahead for good. "That's what impact, game-changing players do."
The Vols held the SEC's leading receiver in check for all but that one play in the game. Jeffery finished with three catches for 87 yards and the go-ahead score.
After stopping the Vols on their next drive, the Gamecocks turned to their true freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore to finish the game. USC went on an eight-play, 92-yard scoring drive that saw Lattimore rush for 64 of his 184 yards on the day and set up Garcia's quarterback keeper, which ensured the Vols would remain winless in conference play.
"They hand the ball off to 21, and he looks like Secretariat running through us," Dooley said.
The Vols must regroup from their fourth straight loss and prepare to go on the road next week to take on in-state rival Memphis in the Liberty Bowl.