Tennessee running back Rajion Neal (20) is congratulated by teammates Ja'Wuan James (70) and Antonio Richardson (74) after scoring a touchdown against South Carolina on Saturday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — Michael Palardy lived up to his word.
Palardy made a 19-yard field goal as time expired Saturday for a 23-21 victory over No. 11 South Carolina that ended the Volunteers’ 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents. Palardy had predicted such a scenario a day earlier in a conversation with Tennessee coach Butch Jones.
“I said, ‘You’ve got the game-winner tomorrow, right?’ ” Jones said. “And he said, ‘I got you, coach.’ ”
The loss may have proved doubly painful for South Carolina, which had a four-game winning streak snapped. Quarterback Connor Shaw left the game after being sacked by Marlon Walls and Daniel McCullers with less than five minutes remaining. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said afterward that Shaw had a sprained knee.
“I think he sort of got tackled on it,” Spurrier said. “It collapsed under him, he said.”
Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) got into field goal range on a spectacular 39-yard catch by freshman Marquez North, who snared the ball with his left hand at the South Carolina 26 while being closely covered by cornerback Ahmad Christian down the left sideline. Four consecutive runs by Marlin Lane got the Vols to the South Carolina 2 and set up the field goal.
Palardy celebrated his game-winning kick by racing to join his teammates on the sideline closest to the Tennessee locker room, where they gathered to celebrate at about the 15-yard line. They later ran to the other side of the field to celebrate with UT’s band and students.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones chest-bumped athletic director Dave Hart on his way off the field.
“It meant everything, to be honest with you,” Palardy said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Mike Davis rushed for 137 yards and a touchdown for South Carolina (5-2, 3-2), which erased a 17-7 halftime deficit before falling. Shaw had a touchdown run and a touchdown pass, though he also was 7-of-21 passing and threw his first interception of the season, ending a string of 177 consecutive passes without getting picked off.
“They came out, played fast, did the things we expect them to do,” Davis said. “We just didn’t execute.”
Tennessee hadn’t beaten a ranked foe since a 31-13 victory over No. 21 South Carolina on Oct. 31, 2009. But on a day when hundreds of former players joined the team Saturday in running into Neyland Stadium, Tennessee finally started playing like the Vols of old.
About 250 former Vols, including All-Pro selections Al Wilson and Jamal Lewis, joined the team in going through the “T” and onto the playing field before the game.
“I was shaking all those guys’ hands earlier and told them, ‘We’ve got your back,’ ” Tennessee offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said. “We’re trying to get Tennessee back to where it needs to be. I think we took the first step to getting there.”
The presence of all those former Vols seemed to inspire Tennessee.
Tennessee took a 3-0 lead on a 37-yard field goal that was set up by a targeting penalty on South Carolina safety Kadetrix Marcus that resulted in his ejection. Marcus had hit Alton “Pig” Howard at the end of a 12-yard reception.
After Shaw’s 76-yard touchdown pass to Damiere Byrd put South Carolina ahead 7-3 on the first play of the second quarter, UT reached the end zone on its next two series. Justin Worley threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Howard and Rajion Neal added a 5-yard touchdown run.
“It’s ultimately a matter of belief,” Jones said. “I thought our team took a valuable step forward two weeks ago. It was gut-wrenching, but also our kids believed and they built confidence. Confidence is a powerful thing. Belief is a powerful thing. We’ve pointed to this game for a long period of time.”
South Carolina regained the momentum after a gutsy fourth-down call.
Shaw scrambled 9 yards for the first down on fourth-and-8 from the Tennessee 45. Shaw capped the drive by pitching right to Davis on third-and-6 for a 21-yard touchdown.
After Palardy’s 46-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left on Tennessee’s next possession, South Carolina grabbed a 21-17 lead Shaw’s 1-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
Tennessee cut the lead to 21-20 with 10:11 remaining on Palardy’s 33-yard field goal, which was set up by North’s leaping 48-yard reception. But the Vols stalled after reaching Gamecocks territory on their next two possessions.
South Carolina, which has gone 6-for-6 on fourth-down conversions over the last two weeks, considered trying to put away the game with one more fourth-down attempt. The Gamecocks faced fourth-and-2 from their own 26 with about three minutes left when Spurrier kept his offense on the field and called two straight timeouts before finally opting to punt.
“We were thinking about going for it,” Spurrier said. “We went up there and if it looked good, we were thinking about going for it. Then, the second time, they actually changed their defense a little bit. We thought we had a little bit of a hole there. ... But looking back, I always tell myself to go for those.”
That punt set the stage for Palardy to reward Jones’ faith in him.
“He tells me every day to visualize a game-winning kick because sooner or later it would come down to it,” Palardy said. “Sure enough, he was right.”