Rocky road: Gamecocks can’t find magic this year against Tennessee, fall to Vols

South Carolina’s upset win over No. 5 Tennessee last year was arguably the Gamecocks’ signature win of the 2022 season.

The Gamecocks dropped 63 points on the Volunteers at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. Quarterback Spencer Rattler completed 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns, with receiver Antwane Juice Wells grabbing 177 of those yards on 11 catches.

This year the game was in Tennessee, home of the No. 21 team Vols. Rattler struggled by his to-date 2023 standard. And Wells did not play due to a left foot injury.

The Gamecocks fell to the Volunteers 41-20 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night.

Here are three takeaways from the loss, which dropped South Carolina to 2-3 (1-2 SEC) going into its open week:

Spencer Rattler had a down night

Anti-Rattler chants from Tennessee fans could be heard on the TV broadcast. After last season’s devastating loss in Columbia, they wanted their get-back. And got it.

Tennessee broke up four of Rattler’s 22 passes in the first half and intercepted another (which he threw too high and was returned for a Vols touchdown). He connected on 15 throws for 91 yards in the first two quarters. He had four completions over 10 yards all night — a 44-yard pass to Ahmarean Brown, with much of that yardage coming after the catch, a 15-yard pass to Xavier Legette, a 13-yard completion to O’Mega Blake and a 20-yarder to Trey Knox.

Before Saturday night, Rattler ranked sixth in the country throwing 310.5 passing yards per game on a 12th-in-the-nation 74.2% clip. His line at the end of the Tennessee game: 24-35 (69%) for 169 yards, and one interception.

The offense as a whole had a bad night

If Saturday night was a test for South Carolina’s offensive line, it failed.

Heading into Saturday night’s game, the Volunteers defense ranked third in the nation in tackles for loss (9.8 per game) and sacks (4 per game). South Carolina offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains decribed UT’s defensive line as being as talented as any the Gamecocks have played this season.

South Carolina entered the game last in the SEC in sacks allowed — tied for 125th nationally — and gave up six more. USC failed to convert on third or fourth downs. The run game struggled to get going again (aside from a 75-yard touchdown run by Mario Anderson to start the third quarter), despite a near 50-50 commitment play-calling wise.

South Carolina had over 130 net rushing yards against UT. Anderson, who got the start over Dakereon Joyner, had over 100 yards on double-digit carries (stats that were inflated by his explosive third quarter run). Rattler had the next most with 19 on double-digit attempts. South Carolina’s other backs combined for five yards on five carries.

The Gamecocks are now 14-2 under coach Shane Beamer in games where they’ve rushed for 100 yards or more.

The defense had an up-and-down night

South Carolina recorded nine tackles for loss and four sacks for the first time all season last week against Mississippi State, both season bests. But the secondary struggled.

Saturday night against Tennessee was a bit of a mixed bag.

Explosive plays continued to plague the defense. The unit allowed a 42-yard run, a 37-yard pass and a 50-yard pass in the first half. The third quarter is where things started to crumble, with Tennessee scoring 21 points in those 15 minutes.

But DQ Smith snagged an interception. So did Jalon Kilgore, who also had 14 tackles (eight solo). Nick Emmanwori had a crucial pass breakup in the back right corner of the end zone during the second quarter, limiting Tennessee to a field goal. Those were some bright spots.

Next USC football game

Who: South Carolina vs. Florida

Where: Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia

When: Saturday, Oct. 14