Nov. 1, 2009
BY DREW EDWARDS
Sudden change is a fact of life on the football field. It's one of the reasons Tennessee spends time during practice each week prepping its offense and defense to take the field and swing momentum following a turnover.
UT coach Lane Kiffin even goes so far as to provide his players with the odds of success in those situations.
"It was good to have a game like that for our players to see," Kiffin said. "We give them percentages with how often you win given the turnover margin.
"Plus-four, you always win."
Those odds didn't change on Saturday night, even if Tennessee's uniform did.
Just four minutes into a 31-13 victory over No. 21 South Carolina, the Vols had forced two fumbles and run just six plays to take a two touchdown lead.
And while the Vols turned two more turnovers into 10 more points, the groundwork for Kiffin's first victory over a ranked opponent had already been laid.
"We call that team football there," said linebacker Rico McCoy, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles and forced two fumbles. "When we can give them good field position, and they can capitalize like that, that's just team football."
It also proved impossible for the Gamecocks (6-3, 3-3 SEC) to recover from.
"You cannot win games turning the ball over," Carolina receiver Moe Brown said. "You can't win the game. That's just being disciplined. That's football 101. We learned that in rec league. Hold onto the ball, protect the ball."
That lesson never sank in Saturday, at least for the Gamecocks.
"We had two fumbles in five plays," said USC quarterback Stephen Garcia, who threw for 300 yards and one touchdown. "It's hard to beat a team when you spot them those points. It's tough beating teams on the road - especially in the SEC, especially good teams - when you spot them points."
Even after digging a 14-point hole with two early fumbles, Garcia fumbled on Carolina's first possession of the second quarter. This time, the Vols needed six plays to reach the end zone on a 2-yard pass from Jonathan Crompton to fullback Kevin Cooper.
Linebacker Greg King, playing in place of LaMarcus Thompson who left with an injury, picked off a Garcia pass in the fourth quarter that set up UT's final points of the night.
Those turnovers - and the 24 points they helped produce - provided some absolution. Tennessee's offense wasn't as efficient as the last two weeks in the passing game. And on third down, the Vols converted just three of 14 chances.
But they didn't commit a turnover, and that cures a lot of ills.
"You get four turnovers on defense, don't give up any on offense, you're going to win a lot of games," Kiffin said. "It's a great lesson for our guys to see. When you do that, the other stuff doesn't really matter. You can play sloppy. You can complete 50 percent of the balls. You can have a few penalties and still win."
And Saturday's win was big for the Vols (4-4, 2-3 SEC).
For one, Tennessee avoided a post-Alabama hangover. For another, they improved to 2-1 against teams from the SEC East after losing to Georgia, Florida and South Carolina last season.
And at .500 with four games left, Tennessee needs just two more wins to become bowl eligible.
"We beat a top 25 team," Kiffin said, "and at the end of the day it's all about winning."