By Jimmy Hyams
A Tennessee defense that showed up against Pitt and LSU and Kentucky and in the second half against Missouri, disappeared under a sandstorm at South Carolina on Saturday night.
The Gamecocks, fueled by a beleaguered quarterback, blasted the fifth-ranked Vols 63-38, ending any hopes Tennessee had of making the College Football Playoffs.
It was a stunning outcome, considering UT (9-2) was favored by 22 points and Carolina (7-4) was coming off a humiliating 38-6 loss at Florida in which the Gators rushed for an eye-popping 374 yards.
Not only did Carolina fall to Florida, but it lost 23-10 at home to Missouri, a team Tennessee mauled 62-24 last week.
While TCU and Ohio State and Michigan were avoiding upsets, Tennessee’s defense couldn’t escape the brilliant play of Carolina quarterback Shane Rattler. The Oklahoma transfer – who entered the game with more interceptions (9) than touchdown passes (8) – completed 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and a school-record six touchdowns.
Rattler, once a Heisman Trophy candidate at Oklahoma, outplayed Tennessee’s Heisman hopeful, Hendon Hooker, who was 25 of 42 for 247 yards and two touchdowns before going down untouched with an apparent knee injury late in the game.
“Shane Rattler – unbelievable,’’ said Carolina coach Shane Beamer.
Tennessee coach Josh Heupel was concerned about Rattler’s potential entering the game.
“Streaky,’’ Heupel said of Rattler. “We said we couldn’t let him get hot. He got hot tonight. He made plays in the pocket and out of the pocket.’’
Rattler led Carolina to scoring drives on each of its five first-half possessions for a 35-24 lead. He led the Gamecocks to four more scores on five full possessions in the second half.
It made you wonder: Where was this guy against Missouri? Or Florida? Or Georgia?
While Rattler was brilliant, one of Tennessee’s preseason worries reared its head: The secondary.
Tennessee couldn’t cover and couldn’t tackle.
It made Carolina’s offensive look like the Kansas City Chiefs.
“We didn’t cover tight enough,’’ Heupel said.
Tennessee didn’t cover at all. It was too soft on third-and-short situations. It left gaping holes in zone coverage. It couldn’t keep up in man coverage. It allowed a conversion on third-and-20. It allowed 453 passing yards. It forced one punt in 10 possessions.
“At the end of the day,’’ said Heupel, “we didn’t coach or play well. I’m disappointed for our players. They hurt. Our coaches hurt. I hurt.’’
UT defensive tackle Latrell Bumphus was at a loss to explain the poor performance.
“It’s a bitter pill,’’ Bumphus said. “It’s hard to swallow. Give them credit. They were the better team tonight and it showed.’’
Tennessee’s defense, which played without linebacker Jeremy Banks (undisclosed reason), allowed Carolina to convert eight of 11 third downs and two of two on fourth down.
The Gamecocks’ 63 points were their most ever as an unranked team against a top five team. The previous high was 42 points.
Carolina certainly flipped the switch on Tennessee.
The Vols entered the game with a high-powered offense, but it was Carolina that put up 63 points.
UT entered the game as one of the nation’s fastest starting teams, but the Gamecocks led 21-7 after the first quarter.
UT entered the game leading the nation in points and total yards, but it was Carolina that was unstoppable, scoring nine touchdowns and rolling up 606 yards.
UT entered the game with creative play calling, but Carolina befuddled the Vols with speed sweeps, a wildcat package, a throwback pass to the quarterback and pass routes that had wideouts running open in the porous Vols’ secondary.
Beamer is now 12-1 when Carolina scores first while Heupel is 0-7 when his team falls behind by 11 points.
“We’ve got a resilient bunch,’’ Beamer said. “I’ve been telling people we’ve got a good football team and we sure as hell showed it tonight.’’
You sure as hell didn’t show it against Florida. Or Missouri. Or Georgia.
But on this night, Carolina was clicking and it left Tennessee in a sandstorm.