A team that had aspirations of winning an SEC East title at the beginning of the season is now in danger of not making a bowl game after South Carolina’s horrifying 45-42 overtime loss Saturday to Tennessee.
What was supposed to be a celebration of sophomore wide receiver Pharoh Cooper’s career night turned into a Halloween-sized nightmare for the Gamecocks, as they allowed a 42-28 lead slip away with 4:52 remaining in the contest.
It’s the third time this season that the Gamecocks allowed an opponent to come back on them in the fourth quarter while up two scores. It seems impossible to lose a game when your offense puts up 625 yards, but South Carolina’s defense gave up 645 yards to what was a struggling Volunteer offensive unit.
Even with that said, the defense did its job to hold Tennessee to a field goal in overtime. Redshirt senior quarterback Dylan Thompson had a chance to lead the Gamecocks to win the game or tie it but couldn't do either. He got sacked twice to move the offense back to the 40-yard line. After an incomplete pass, sophomore kicker Elliott Fry had a 58-yard attempt to send the game to a second overtime.
It never had a chance.
Head coach Steve Spurrier was so distraught after the game that he didn’t take any questions from the media and gave a brief statement that went under a minute in length. Media members and fans are starting to wonder how much more heartbreak the 69-year old coach can take before he considers other endeavors.
“This is a tough one. It’s going to take a while to get this one out of your system,” Spurrier said. “But we’ve had three or four like that this year, so I guess I should be getting used them by now.”
The loss spoiled a career night for Cooper. He threw for a touchdown, ran for another one and also caught two others. He broke South Carolina’s school record for receiving yards in a game with 233 on 11 catches and added 30 passing yards and 23 yards rushing. He even laid his body on the line and recovered an onside kick that looked to seal things for the Gamecocks. The offense went three-and-out with their possession, allowing Tennessee’s game-tying opportunity.
Redshirt junior Brandon Wilds also had his best collegiate game with 173 total yards (143 rushing, 30 receiving) and three total touchdowns on just 10 touches. He said after the game that as a running back, he thought the offense should have run the ball in overtime, which was working well throughout the game. Spurrier said he wished he had one or two calls back and maybe that sequence was one of them.
By all accounts, the mood in the locker room after the game was disappointing and shocking. Redshirt senior spur Sharrod Golightly said he was “numb” and couldn’t pay attention to anything coaches were saying.
“Guys who care about winning that are losing aren’t happy right now,” Thompson added. “To go out there and fight and come up short, it hurts.”
The blame, however, will probably largely point to the defense. It's quite astonishing to allow the Tennessee offense 344 yards on the ground — the most the Vols have had against an SEC team since 1994, when they were previously rushing, on average, less than 105 yards per game. And when you consider the fact that it was with the Volunteers’ backup quarterback Josh Dobbs at the helm, it makes things that much worse.
Dobbs was poised enough to lead a 14-point comeback late and finished the game with an eye-opening 301 passing yards, 166 rushing yards and five total touchdowns.
Gamecock defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has seemingly tried everything, but his group still consistently leaves receivers wide-open and still can’t tackle in crucial moments. He said he was speechless at the defensive results on Saturday, but even after nine games of little triumph and a lot of despair, he maintains that the problems can be fixed.
“Just keep working at what you’re doing,” Ward said. “You can’t get any worse, so eventually, you got to get better.”