The Tennessee-South Carolina series had not lacked for drama recently. The past two games have been decided by five total points. Both games came down to last-second plays in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Tennessee’s 2013 win against the Gamecocks is widely considered Butch Jones’ first signature win as a Vol. South Carolina was ranked No. 11 in the nation and the Vols, who were 3-3 and winless in the SEC, were 7.5-point underdogs. The Vols hadn’t topped a ranked foe in almost four years. South Carolina was supposed to roll.
Despite the odds stacked against him, senior kicker Michael Palardy had faith headed into the game. He told Jones on Friday that he’d kick the game winner on Saturday.
“I said, ‘You’ve got the game-winner tomorrow, right?’ ” Jones recalled. “And he said, ‘I got you, Coach.’ ”
Indeed, Palardy’s confidence was well-founded. He kicked a 19-yard field goal to clinch a 23-21 win for the Vols.
While fans were focused on Palardy’s kick, Jones was focused on the other 10 Vols on the field. Jones was trying to instill discipline in a program that had little under former coach Derek Dooley, i.e. the debacle in Baton Rouge when the Vols had 13 players on the field against LSU in 2010. Jones knew his team was a small mistake away from costing it any chance to win the South Carolina game.
“With the 10-second runoff, we had no timeouts left and we ran the clock down to three seconds and then spiked the football,” he recalled this week. “If our offensive line or anybody would have flinched or jumped, the game would have been over with.”
In terms of clutch play, the Vols have been at their best against South Carolina. In 2013, receiver Marquez North made an incredible catch to give Palardy a shot at the game winner.
In 2014, it was quarterback Joshua Dobbs who took over the game to best the Gamecocks. The Vols trailed South Carolina 42-28 with 4:52 remaining. Dobbs then ran for a touchdown and threw for another to set the Vols up for a 45-42 overtime win.
“I think the South Carolina games have meant a lot to us in terms of resiliency and resolve, finding a way to win the game,” Jones said. “I go back to the first game, we found a way to win also managing the game.
“You look at last year’s game, that team was very focused and very determined to win the football game and we found a way to win the football game. Each year is different but you continue to build off of those experiences.”
This year is indeed different. The Vols are now the hunted – not the hunter. Tennessee is a 16-point favorite. South Carolina is energized under interim coach Shawn Elliott.
If the Vols are at all flat on Saturday, they may need to draw upon some of that past resiliency to hold off the Gamecocks. Given the recent history of this series, the Vols should be comfortable with that.