KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Highly questionable play-calling, an ill-timed penalty on special teams, a slow offensive start in the first half and a clutch third-down reception by a freshman wide receiver for Tennessee cost South Carolina dearly on Rocky Top.
Michael Palardy's chip-shot 19-yard field goal at the buzzer gave the Vols a walk-off 23-21 victory over the Gamecocks Saturday afternoon in front of 95,736 fans at Neyland Stadium, dropping the Gamecocks to 5-2 overall, 3-2 in the SEC.
The loss snapped USC's three-game winning streak over Tennessee, ended its four-game winning streak overall and marked the second time this season the Gamecocks lost when rushing for more than 200 yards, something that has rarely happened in Steve Spurrier's nine-year tenure as USC coach.
"Obviously, you always go back and wish you'd run here or thrown there," Spurrier said. "We only attempted 22 (passes), but we called a lot more than 22. We ran the ball a lot (42 attempts) and had some good runs here and there, but we also had some nothing runs. We didn't have a lot of consistent four, five or six yard runs, especially late in the game when a first down or two would have helped."
Mike Davis rushed for 137 yards on 21 carries, while Shaw had 19 carries for 78 yards before being helped off the field due to a sprained knee with less than five minutes remaining.
"He got tackled and it collapsed under him," Spurrier said. "How serious, they'll have to wait and evaluate. They're calling it a sprained knee right now."
Shaw, though, experienced one of his worst days as a Gamecock throwing the ball, connecting on just 7-of-21 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown, a 76-yard masterpiece to Damiere Byrd on the first snap of the second quarter.
But other times Shaw looked indecisive and held the ball too long as he searched in vain to find an open receiver down the field.
Shaw fell to 22-5 in his career as the starting quarterback with all five losses coming on the road.
"I don't know if the pressure (from Tennessee pass rush) got him, he made some good run outs, I'll say that," Spurrier said. "But other times it looked like we had some guys open and he got pressured, I guess."
USC outgained Tennessee, 384-325, but two turnovers (and a turnover margin of minus-2 since USC failed to force a turnover) and the aforementioned strategy proved too much to overcome.
"Give Tennessee credit because I think they outplayed us, although we were within a play or two of winning," Spurrier said. "But we didn't do it. They hit a couple of deep balls, which happens to us occasionally. We didn't play well offensively at all. Tennessee had a good plan, Their defense played very well."
USC was penalized a season-high nine times for 83 yards.
"We had a lot of careless penalties today that in a close game come back to haunt you," Spurrier said. "It always seems we get a penalty on kickoff return or punt return. Our guys can't play by the rules. Field position was extremely important in a close game like today."
USC's average starting field position was its own 20, while Tennessee's average starting field position was its own 35, a difference of 15 yards. In the SEC, that's a mile.
The setback, USC's first to Tennessee since 2009, together with Vanderbilt's 31-27 victory over Georgia in Nashville and Missouri's 36-17 win over Florida in Columbia, Mo., left the Tigers in firm control of the SEC East with a 3-0 conference mark.
Every other team in the division has at least two losses, with USC, Florida and Georgia all tied for second place with 3-2 league marks.
Fourth quarter hitches continued to plague the Gamecocks, which ran just 12 plays and controlled the ball for 5:15 in the final period as Tennessee enjoyed a significant advantage in yardage, 120-15
Through seven games, USC has been outscored, 64-42, in the fourth quarter, including 6-0 on Saturday as the Vols booted a pair of field goals to rally from a 21-17 deficit with 15 minutes remaining.
Trailing 17-7 at halftime, Shaw scrambled and was hit out of bounds for a 15-yard penalty, but seconds later threw across his body rolling left and the pass landed into the arms of a Tennessee defender, ending his interception-less streak at 177 passes.
On USC's next possession, Spurrier gambled on fourth-ansd-8 and the Gamecocks were able to pick up the first down when Shaw scrambled for nine yards to the UT 36. Davis then took a handoff and sidestepped past multiple Tennessee defenders en route to a 21-yard touchdown run that catapulted him over the 100-yard rushing mark for the sixth time in seven yards.
Ahead 17-14, Tennessee drove as far as the USC 29, but a 47-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left, keeping the deficit at three points.
Shaw looked to be in trouble on second-and-11, but somehow escaped and knifed through the Tennessee defense for a 29-yard scramble into Tennessee territory. Shaw then flipped a pass to a wide-open Busta Anderson on a crossing route to the UT 12 before completing the drive by powering over from the 1-yard line to give USC the lead for the first time, 21-17, with 2:50 left in the third quarter.
Spurrier's suspect play-calling actually began in the early stage of the fourth quarter. Moments after Davis had gained six runs on first down and Shaw had scrambled seven yards on third-and-7 to the UT 45, Spurrier called three straight pass plays that resulted in two incompletes and a sack.
After he scrambled for a first down and drew a horse-collar penalty on the same play, Worley completed a 48-yard pass to North, an impressive looking freshman that leaped over safety Brison Williams to make an acrobatic catch.
But the defense stiffened and Tennessee settled for a 33-yard field goal from Palardy with 10:11 left to narrow USC's lead to a single point, 21-20.
Then one of the biggest plays of the game occurred. Freshman Pharoh Cooper returned the ensuing kickoff out to midfield, but T.J. Gurley was flagged for holding, negating the return and forcing the Gamecocks to start from its 11, a difference of about 40 yards.
When three rushes went nowhere, a short punt by Hull landed at the SC 35. But the Gamecock defense stepped up and a costly hands-to-the-face penalty on the Vols pushed the ball back to the SC 45 and out of field goal range. A third-down sack by Quarles pushed the ball beyond midfield to the UT 49, forcing a punt.
USC took over at its 12 with 5:44 left and, after Shaw was helped off the field with an injury after USC had dropped back to pass three straight times, the Gamecocks punted the ball away. But the Vols ran three plays and punted the ball back to USC with 3:16 left.
USC wasted two timeouts with 2:55 left trying to figure out whether to gamble on fourth-and-2 from the SC 26. They eventually punted, setting the stage for North's circus catch on third down and Palardy's game-winning field goal.
"We were thinking about going for it," Spurrier said. "But the second time they changed their defense a little bit. We thought we had a little bit of hole there and we had a different play called.
"They got the ball, it went to third-and-10 and they hung up a jump ball on us and their kid made a heckuva one-handed catch," Spurrier said. "Then they ran it down there and kicked the field goal."
For the most part, the first half was forgettable for the Gamecocks.
Moments after Kadetrix Marcus was ejected for targeting with just under 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter, Clowney planted a Vols running back for his second tackle for loss of the game.
After Clowney's massive wallop, Tennessee settled for a 37-yard field goal by Palardy with 9:14 left in the first quarter.
The USC offense continued to look discombobulated on its second series with a dropped pass by Shaq Roland among three plays that went nowhere.
Davis was handed the ball on USC's opening play of the third possession and he ripped off a 45-yard run to the UT 44. But the long run was wasted as Shaw mishandled the ensuing snap, lost his grip on the football and the Vols recovered at the 45, although replays showed Davis might have had a grip on the football as well.
Again, the USC defense picked up the offense with another stop. However, the offense quickly found themselves in another third-and-long situation and was forced to punt.
Despite outgaining the Vols, 81-37, the Gamecocks trailed, 3-0, at the end of the first quarter as Shaw completed just 1-of-6 passes in the opening period and Davis ran for 72 yards.
However, the deficit evaporated on the first snap of the second quarter when Shaw erased memories of his poor first frame by firing a perfect pass to Damiere Byrd streaking down the middle of the field on a well- executed post pattern.
Byrd snagged the ball in stride and raced into the end zone for a 76-yard score, his third straight game with a touchdown catch of at least 45 yards.
Tennessee took the ensuing kickoff and drove into the red zone. Clowney tackled a Vols ball carrier short of the first down marker on a third-and-2, but grabbed the face mark to give the Vols a coveted first down at the SC 6.
Two plays later, Worley rolled right and hit Pig Howard in the end zone for the touchdown to give Tennessee a 10-7 lead with 10:12 left in the second quarter.
After another three-and-out by USC, the Vols took over at its 39 and rocketed down the field, needing only seven plays to score its second touchdown in a span of 4:01 for a 17-7 lead.
A wide receiver screen to Byrd (21 yards) and a swing pass to Davis (11 yards) jumpstarted the USC offense on its next possession, but the run-dominated drive stalled at the UT 27 and Elliott Fry's 45-yard field goal attempt fell far short of the goalposts with 54 seconds left in the second quarter.
USC almost got the ball back when Clowney grabbed Neal, but his fling into the air was ruled an incomplete pass and the Vols were able to run out the second quarter clock.
USC outgained Tennessee, 206-161, and held the Vols to 1-of-7 on third downs in the first half, but the two long UT scoring drives in the second quarter were the difference as the Gamecocks trailed, 17-7, going to the locker rooms.