Vols run over South Carolina

Published 3:17 pm Monday, October 2, 2023

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The Tennessee defense kept South Carolina in check, and junior Jaylen Wright rushed for 123 yards and was one of three backs with touchdown runs as the No. 21 Volunteers earned a 41-20 league victory Saturday night over the Gamecocks.

UT (4-1, 1-1 SEC) donned its Nike “Dark Mode” uniforms with black helmets, black jerseys and black pants in front of a capacity crowd of 101,915 on Champions Weekend, when the 1998 SEC and BCS National Championship team and other UT championship squads and individuals were recognized.

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Wright paced the SEC’s leading rushing attack, grinding out season highs in yards and attempts (16) while recording his first TD on the ground in 2023. Joining him with scoring runs were Jabari Small and Dylan Sampson, as they enabled the Big Orange to surpass 200 yards rushing for the fourth time in five games with 238 total on a six-yards-per-carry average.

Quarterback Joe Milton III finished 21 of 32 passing for 239 yards, helping the Vols generate 477 yards of total offense to USC’s 333. Wide receiver Squirrel White was Milton III’s most frequent target, as the sophomore hauled in season highs with nine receptions and 104 yards.

The Tennessee defense kept Gamecock quarterback Spencer Rattler in check for most of the evening, limiting him to 169 yards passing with no touchdowns and 19 net rushing yards. The Vols, who entered the game first in the SEC and third in FBS in sacks, tallied six against Rattler along with three hurries and ran their streak of at least one sack in consecutive games to nine in a row. Defensive end James Pearce Jr. tallied two QB takedowns, while defensive tackles Omari Thomas and Kurott Garland and defensive end Joshua Josephs had one apiece. Defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott and defensive end Dominic Bailey each tallied a half sack.

After forcing South Carolina to punt on its opening possession, Tennessee took control at its own six yard-line and needed only three minutes to produce points. On the ninth play of the drive, Wright took the handoff, found a crease in the center of the line and bounced outside the right hash to speed 42 yards into the north checkerboard. Charles Campbell’s extra point made it 7-0 Vols with 9:28 left in the first quarter.

South Carolina countered with scores on its next two possessions to take the lead. A 36-yard Mitch Jeter field goal, a six-yard keeper by Rattler and Jeter’s PAT made it 10-7 Gamecocks with 2:30 to go in the opening stanza.

Tennessee needed less than a minute and a half to move back in front. A 21-yard carry by Small and 50-yard pass from Milton III to White set up a two-yard scoring run by Small. Campbell’s kick made it 14-10 Big Orange with 42 seconds remaining in the first frame as an orange-hued moon came into view over the stadium’s southeast rim.

The Vols tacked on 10 more points in the second frame. Campbell booted a 24-yard field goal to push the lead to 17-10 with 8:50 left in the second quarter. Then, the defense got in on the act, as cornerback Kamal Hadden picked off an errant Rattler pass following Pearce’s hurry and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown with 47 seconds left on the clock. Campbell’s PAT sent the home team into the locker room with a 24-10 lead.

Tennessee extended its scoring run to 17 points and the lead to 31-10 early in the third before the Gamecocks responded. Tight end Jacob Warren hauled in a six-yard TD toss from Milton III with 10:41 to go, and Campbell followed with the extra point before South Carolina got a 75-yard run from Mario Anderson and a PAT from Jeter to trim the deficit to 31-17 at the 10:28 mark.

The Vols and Gamecocks traded field goals early in the final stanza. Campbell was good from 33 yards at the 12:42 mark to make it 34-17 UT, but Jeter cut the lead to 34-20 with a 47-yarder with 8:35 to go. The Vols, however, put the game out of reach at 41-20 with a nine-play, 75-yard drive that was capped by a six-yard Sampson scamper and Campbell PAT with 4:09 remaining.

Tennessee is off Saturday and will host  Texas A&M on Oct. 14.