Against an offense firing on all cylinders, a mistake-filled opening half spelled certain doom for South Carolina in a 45-20 loss to Tennessee on Saturday afternoon.
If there were any doubts in the Volunteers' abilities to continue their offensive dominance after scoring 62 points against Missouri last week, they were quickly erased in front of a ruckus Neyland Stadium crowd.
With the tempo offense at its disposal, Tennessee (4-2, 2-1 SEC) quickly jumped out to a 28-point advantage over South Carolina (3-3, 0-3 SEC) by the end of the first quarter. Whether it was questionable play-calling or the defense being outmatched, the Gamecocks put themselves in a massive hole that was difficult to get out of.
"We talked about it — being able to handle the tempo and settle down — and we did as the game went on, but we dug ourselves too big a hole early in the game," head coach Shane Beamer said at a postgame press conference. "So, we got to do a better job of starting fast."
Trailing by two scores, South Carolina's offense began to show signs of life by moving inside the red zone. However, the once-promising drive ended in disappointment rather quickly. Sophomore defensive end Jordan Burch, playing in his first offensive snap of the year, took a toss sweep and threw an interception into a swarm of defenders.
On the team's next possession, the Volunteers forced a fumble inside Gamecock territory and scored three plays later, putting the game on ice early on.
"We got to figure out why it was such a bad first quarter, and we got to play and coach better," Beamer said. "Continue to put our guys in position to make plays and not get down 28-nothing before you blink where it is."
Assuming starting Tennessee quarterback duties, redshirt senior Hendon Hooker did his job in terms of keeping the Gamecock defense modest. Taking advantage of the miscues early on, he threw three touchdowns for 225 yards.
Hooker's ability to make plays with his feet forced South Carolina into trying to contain not only the pass game, but the run also.
"Obviously, we didn't do a great job of affecting the quarterback and give Tennessee credit. I think the biggest issue today was we obviously weren't as ready to handle early in the game as we needed to," Beamer said.
On the ground, he ran for 66 yards and one touchdown, while his teammate, junior running back Tiyon Evans rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown before going down with an injury.
Without redshirt sophomore defensive back Cam Smith and senior defensive back R.J. Roderick for the first half due to targeting, South Carolina gave up 8.7 yards per play and 10.9 yards per pass attempt.
Junior running back Kevin Harris scored the team's lone points towards the end of the opening half, getting in the end zone on a six-yard run.
After working his way back from injury and struggling, Harris looked relieved to record his first touchdown of the season.
"It felt pretty good to get in the end zone," Harris said at a postgame press conference. "Probably the last time I got in the end zone was what, last season? Maybe about six games, so it felt good."
The defense turned its poor play around in the second half, allowing just 7 points. Yet, as has been the case for a majority of the season, the offense could not piece together consistent drives.
Trailing by a large margin, the Gamecocks shined offensively at times, scoring on a fake punt touchdown pass from sophomore punter Kai Kroeger to redshirt freshman wide receiver Payton Mangrum, and another touchdown run from Harris in the fourth quarter.
Despite the late-game efforts, the troublesome first half kept South Carolina from closing in on Tennessee's lead, resulting in another loss in conference play.
"It's the halfway point in the season. We've got a long way to go, and we've got a big game coming up next week. I think that's just another opportunity for us to go out there and show what we're about," sophomore quarterback Luke Doty said at a postgame press conference.
Up next, the Gamecocks will host Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-2 SEC) next Saturday afternoon at Williams-Brice Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. on SEC Network.