KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, with a voice hoarse from delivering a post-game speech to his players, singing Rocky Top with the fans and coaching the Volunteers to a 23-21 upset of No. 11 South Carolina, said he was most happy with his team's resilience and ability to make crucial plays against the Gamecocks.
"You find out a lot about your football team when you make a play to win at the end of the game, and that's what I'm most pleased with," Jones said.
Two of those plays came on the game's final drive, with Tennessee down 21-20 and less than three minutes left on the game clock. Facing third and long from his own 35-yard line, Justin Worley launched a 39-yard pass to Marquez North that carried the Volunteers deep into South Carolina territory and breathed new life into Tennessee's comeback hopes.
"A game can be decided by two or three plays, but you never know which two or three plays they're going to be," Jones said. "I thought our kids showed some resiliency. Marquez North obviously made a big time play, but hats off to Justin Worley too. He was poised, stood in the pocket. And then Mike Palardy - it's been a long time coming."
Jones said he knew the Volunteers were going to be challenged by the Gamecocks, but he was happy that they buckled down and gritted it out. Tennessee was outgained by 384 yards to 325 and only converted five of their 17 first-down attempts, but in Jones' own words, "We found a way to win."
"We believe. We believe in the way we train," Jones said. "I'm just really proud of our players and their leadership and all the things that they've been through."
Part of Jones' coaching strategy this week was to emphasize the importance of fighting for every inch. After a practice this week, he handed out orange inch sticks to his players. Jones said that his team embraced the mantra during the game, especially in the final 11 minutes, when the Volunteers scored twice to overcome a 21-17 deficit.
"Inches make the champion. Inches make the difference," Jones said. "You could hear all of our kids on the sideline yelling 'inches!' Our kids believed in it. We were fighting for that inch today and we found that inch."
Jones called South Carolina's offense "explosive," and credited Connor Shaw with being a "talented, talented quarterback," but said he liked how the Volunteer defense handled them. Tennessee held the Gamecocks to well under their average of 486.5 total yards per game and allowed South Carolina to convert just four of its 14 third-down attempts.
"Defensively, I thought we played pretty well all game," Jones said. "We talked about being resilient."
Against a South Carolina team that Jones says makes teams "work for every yard you get," the Tennessee offense also did some things that impressed their head coach. Jones liked how his offense strung plays together to build long drives, chewing up over 32 minutes of game clock and running 77 plays to South Carolina's 64.
"We wanted to get to the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth play of drives, and we talked to our players all week long about getting that, making conditioning a factor," Jones said. "I thought our kids embraced that, and I thought they did a great job."
Jones was also happy to see Worley maturing into an SEC starting quarterback before his eyes, but said today's game was evidence other offensive players are stepping up around him.
"Marquez North, Alton Howard, those guys made some big plays for us today," Jones said. "I think the players around him are making plays, and he's going through that maturation phase of being the starting quarterback day in and day out."
"He's playing with a lot of confidence, and he's gritty," Jones said. "He's playing with a lot of grit right now."
With the win, Tennessee moves to 4-3 on the season and 1-2 in the SEC. The Volunteers also snapped a 19-game losing streak to ranked opponents, but they will face No. 1 Alabama on the road next week. Jones let his players stay out on the field a little bit longer than usual to savor the win, and he said he thinks the Volunteers can turn the corner with today's game, but only if they do the right things moving forward.
"It's a big game because we won and it's all about winning," Jones said. "But I do think we took a major step forward. Now, will this have any indication down the road? No. It's what we do with it."