COLUMBIA, S.C. (UT Athletics) – The 16th-ranked Tennessee football team found the end zone in all four quarters during a hard-fought road win over South Carolina Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Volunteers have now triumphed in seven straight games, dating to last season.
A special teams mistake by South Carolina (0-1) in the game’s closing moments secured the victory for UT (1-0), as true freshman Jimmy Holiday secured a muffed punt deep in Gamecocks territory.
Tennessee’s defense shined in the first half and earned the stops it needed in the second to help the Vols open the third season of UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure on a high note. The Vols withstood a third-quarter surge by Carolina, which authored back-to-back touchdown drives to tie the game at 21-21. But Tennessee never allowed its opponent to pull ahead through the final three quarters.
Making his 26th career start, Vols quarterback Jarrett Guarantano completed 19 of 31 passes for 259 yards and one touchdown. The senior graduate also rushed for 12 yards and one score.
Guarantano’s effort in the win pushed him to 5,254 yards of total offense in his career, moving him past current UT assistant head coach Tee Martin (5,206 yards from 1996-99) and into eighth place in program history.
“If you play in the SEC, (the games are) dogfights every week,” Guarantano said. “When you go on the road in the SEC, nothing comes easy. You saw that a couple times today. But I think this team is very together—the chemistry we have in the locker room, the love that we have for one another.
“The atmosphere that coach Pruitt has brought to this university has kind of been implemented throughout. You can see it in the team in these tough wins, that we never give up on each other and we’re fighting to the end.”
Tennessee tailbacks Ty Chandler and Eric Gray each logged double-digit carries and combined to net 126 rushing yards. Senior receiver Josh Palmer had team highs in both catches (6) and receiving yards (85). And grad transfer Velus Jones Jr. also made an impact in his Big Orange debut, averaging 33.0 yards on a pair of kick returns and catching five passes for 29 yards.
After taking the game’s opening kickoff, the Gamecocks dealt the first blow when Kevin Harris capped an 11-play, 75-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run. The Tennessee defense established some swagger thereafter, however, allowing just 18 yards the rest of the half.
Later in the first quarter, Guarantano engineered an impressive and efficient 90-yard touchdown drive to knot the game at 7-7. The graduate signal-caller completed all five of his pass attempts during the seven-play drive—including a pair of 30-yard tosses—before finishing things off with an over-the-top, one-yard sneak.
The Tennessee defense gave the Vols their first lead of the night when sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o—a Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski awards candidate—intercepted a Collin Hill pass on the opening drive of the second quarter and followed a host of Volunteers 32 yards into the end zone. The play marked To’o To’o’s first career interception and first career TD.
The Vols took possession to open third quarter and quickly marched 74 yards in eight plays with Gray cashing in from 12 yards out to give Tennessee a 21-7 lead. Gray’s sixth career touchdown was preceded by a career-long 19-yard run by Guarantano.
South Carolina was quick to answer on the ensuing drive, when a 29-yard strike from Hill to Shi Smith put Smith over the 100-yard receiving mark and found the end zone.
Then, following a missed field-goal attempt by UT, Hill led the Gamecocks on a 10-play, game-tying drive that ended with him scoring on a one-yard, goal-line sneak.
Tennessee reclaimed the lead minutes later when All-SEC kicker Brent Cimaglia made a 27-yard field goal, but South Carolina countered with a field goal of its own on its first drive of the fourth quarter.
That deadlocked the score at 24-24 with 10:48 left to play and set the stage for a go-ahead Tennessee drive that saw Guarantano deliver consecutive passes of 30+ yards. The second was a 32-yard bullseye to Palmer in the end zone. The scoring strike gave Guarantano two touchdowns accounted for against the Gamecocks for the third straight year (five passing, one rushing).
South Carolina tacked on a 45-yard field goal that trimmed the Tennessee lead to 31-27 with 3:16 remaining in the fourth.
Swarming with purpose in its white “stormtrooper” uniform, the Tennessee defense was led Saturday by Bryce Thompson and Kenneth George Jr., who totaled eight tackles apiece. Deandre Johnson logged 2.5 sacks, and true freshman Doneiko Slaughter also added a sack in his Big Orange debut.
“It felt good being able to hit that field with my brothers, “To’o To’o, who finished with six tackles and a QB hurry, said after the game. “That’s kind of what you play this sport for. You play this sport to go out with a group of men, to be able to execute a plan, to be able to depend on each other and be able to fight. I love each and everyone on this team, so it felt good being able to run out in those orange and white jerseys today.”
The Volunteers look to win their eighth straight overall—and their fifth straight home game—next Saturday when they host Missouri for a noon ET kickoff at Neyland Stadium. The game will be televised on the SEC Network, and tickets remain available at AllVols.com.