COLUMBIA, S.C. — Any Southeastern Conference quarterback looking to set a career high for passing yards simply needs to hope the Tennessee Volunteers are on the schedule.
Saturday afternoon, South Carolina's Connor Shaw joined Mississippi State's Tyler Russell and Alabama's AJ McCarron in setting personal yardage marks when the dual-threat junior threw for 356 yards as the 17th-ranked Gamecocks held on for a 38-35 win at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Vols' defense lived up to its statistical ranking as the SEC's second-worst against the pass.
"Every team we've played has, so I don't know what evidence we've got that says they're not going to throw it very well against us," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said.
Receiver Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard for the Gamecocks' basketball team, set a career high with 108 yards on six catches. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for nine catches, 159 yards and two scores. Ace Sanders had 79 yards receiving and a touchdown.
"They were just doing what they do: moving people around, scrambling with the quarterback and working those slot receivers," safety Byron Moore said.
South Carolina tallied nine plays of 19 or more yards, and Shaw narrowly missed on a couple of deep throws. One long run by tailback Mike Davis was nullified by penalty.
In search of some solution, the Vols made in-game personnel moves in the secondary. Brent Brewer started the second half at safety, and Rod Willks also played on that possession after Moore said he cramped on kickoff coverage. Freshman Daniel Gray replaced fifth-year senior Prentiss Waggner for the entire fourth quarter.
"We were giving up a bunch of yards with those other guys," Dooley said. "We've got to start playing them, and I said I would. We'll watch the film and see how they did."
Tennessee allowed only 10 second-half points and bowed up to hold two fourth-quarters series inside field-goal range to just three points.
"It's a good offense, but a simple offense," said linebacker Herman Lathers, who had 15 tackles, a sack and an interception. "It's just mental errors. That's what killing us right now."
In five SEC losses under first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri, the UT defense has allowed just 236 yards and 11 points less than it did in eight league games last season under Justin Wilcox.
"Our identity's give up a lot of plays, keep fighting and try to hunker down at the end," Dooley said. "So far that identity's gotten us 3-5. We need to fix our identity and reshape our identity."
Rogers runs wild
Zach Rogers continued his exceptional season Saturday, as UT's senior receiver caught six passes for 107 yards and three touchdowns to become the ninth player in program history to catch three touchdown passes in one game.
"What Zach does is he plays fast without the ball, and he practices fast without the ball," Dooley said. "I think that develops a lot of trust with [quarterback] Tyler [Bray] on where he's going to be. That's what our other kids have got to learn how to do.
"If you don't play fast without the ball or you don't practice fast all the time, you can't get that trust and rhythm and timing down, and it's something that receivers learn over time. He's seen the value of it. He's getting rewarded for it."
His 22-yard toe-tapping catch in the fourth quarter was a highlight-reel grab.
"He went out there and did his thing today," junior receiver Justin Hunter said. "He made some spectacular catches out there. He's been doing that all year, so we don't expect nothing [else]."
After 14-reception seasons in 2010 and 2011, the Nashville native now has 29 this season to go along with five of his seven career touchdown catches.
"That goes back to offseason work," he said. "We were in there in every day, throwing those routes every day and knowing where we we're going to be, because [Bray's] got to develop that confidence in us to make the plays when they're most needed."
After Dooley said he wasn't playing up to his billing as a projected first-round NFL draft pick, Hunter responded to the tune of 90 yards on eight catches. The Vols threw a pass to him on the game's first play and targeted him more than a dozen times. The Gamecocks play mostly man-to-man coverage, and the Vols entered the game thinking they could throw with success.
"I still wanted the win at the end," Hunter said. "Even though I wanted to play my hardest, I still wanted a win for my team. I just went out there having the mindset that nobody could stop me."
He shot down any thoughts of a rift between him and his coach one day after negatively reacting on his Twitter account.
"There's going to be times where he was down after Coach said that," Bray said. "I don't know exactly what he said, but [Hunter] talked about it to me. I told him to forget and go out there and do what you normally do, and he went out there and did it."
Though Shaw appeared to step out of bounds on his last-minute third-down run, Dooley said he called Tennessee's final timeout with 47 seconds left because the official signaled for the clock to continue and he didn't "have time to argue." ... Right guard Zach Fulton and tailback Rajion Neal didn't play with ankle injuries and were replaced as starters by Alex Bullard and Marlin Lane, and sophomore Jordan Williams started for the first time in his career at Jack linebacker. ... Freshman Alton "Pig" Howard's fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Mychal Rivera was the first Vols touchdown pass by a non-quarterback since Lucas Taylor's pitch to LaMarcus Coker against Georgia in 2007. ... Tennessee had a fumble recovery in the second quarter negated by a horse-collar penalty called on linebacker Willie Bohannon. ... Moore, linebacker A.J. Johnson and center James Stone were Tennessee's captains.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...