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October 19, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - If the road to Atlanta didn't get a little farther away for No. 11 South Carolina after a 23-21 loss to unranked Tennessee, it certainly didn't get any closer. On a day when SEC East contenders Georgia and Florida took a step backward, the door was flung open for the Gamecocks to take control their own SEC destiny.
Instead, destiny dismissed the Gamecocks, as a lackluster effort in all three phases of the game allowed a plucky Tennessee team that was winless in the conference to notch a signature victory for first-year head coach Butch Johnson and send 90,000-plus Volunteer fans into a frenzy.
While Connor Shaw had his worst game of the season in almost every regard - throwing the ball poorly, making bad decisions and turning the ball over twice - and the defense committed penalty after penalty on third downs and allowed big pass play after big pass play, the special teams was particularly disappointing from start to finish, frustrating Steve Spurrier after the game.
"It seems like we always get a penalty on kickoff return or punt return," Spurrier said. "Our guys can't play by the rules. Field position was extremely important in a close game like today."
"Special teams just continues to get pushing in the back and holding penalties on kick returns. It's sad we can't team them to play by the rules, but we can't do it. That's why that's maybe one big reason we got beat today."
The biggest of those special teams mistakes came when T.J. Gurley was called for holding on a superb return out to midfield by Pharoh Cooper with 10:03 left in the fourth quarter. With South Carolina up 21-20 after allowing the Volunteers to drive and kick a field goal, Cooper's electrifying return appeared to set up a rejuvenated Gamecock offense with great starting field position. Instead, USC took over at its own 11, and never threatened the end zone or the Volunteer side of the field the rest of the way.
For the game, the Gamecocks average starting field position was their own 20, while Tennessee was 15 yards better, averaging starting at its own 35. That difference made mistakes such as penalties even more significant, and the penalties were legion: The Gamecocks committed a season-high nine penalties for 84 yards to Tennessee's five for 40 yards. Five penalties came on third downs, two of which led directly to 10 Volunteer points, and another targeting penalty ejected starting safety Kadetrix Marcus from the game on the Volunteers' second drive.
"We had a lot of careless penalties today," Spurrier said. "In a close game they come back to haunt you, and that's the way it turned out."
For Ward, the penalties on third downs weren't a cause for concern.
"No," he said when asked if they bothered him. "That's what happens when you play hard. The penalty they threw earlier on J.J. (Marcus), I don't know what to do. I don't know how you teach tackling."
When asked if the thought the targeting call was clean, Ward was clear.
"Of course," Ward said. "But it's in the view of the official."
"That's the game. Penalties are going to happen."
And so are losses when you commit them on the road, stall offensively, give up big plays and aren't able to generate any extra opportunities through turnovers.
"We had a lot of chances," Spurrier said. "Maybe we thought we were too good. I don't know.
"We've got some work to do."
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