COLUMBIA, S.C. – Zach Rogers hoped Tennessee had learned how costly one mistake could be in the Southeastern Conference. Instead, the Vols showed they've still got plenty of improvement to make if they hope to break their league losing streak.
Tennessee was driving for the go-ahead score in the final two minutes of its 38-35 loss to No. 17 South Carolina on Saturday when quarterback Tyler Bray was hit and fumbled to end the series and the Vols' latest chance to snap a six-game SEC slide.
"One mistake when you're behind in a ballgame in the SEC can really hurt you," said Rogers, who tied a Tennessee record with three touchdown catches. "We have learned week in and week out that you can't make those kind of mistakes."
Tennessee (3-5) opened 0-5 in the SEC for the third straight season under coach Derek Dooley.
Dooley was proud of his team rallying from two touchdowns behind in the final quarter. Still, he said Tennessee came up short against an SEC gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and the Gamecocks (7-2, 5-2).
"We didn't really accomplish what we wanted to against these SEC top teams, but we have to turn the page," Dooley said. "There's a lot at stake down the stretch and we could still have a really good season."
South Carolina held on despite a horrific right knee injury to Marcus Lattimore. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said the injury appeared every bit as serious as the torn left knee ligaments which caused Lattimore to miss the final six games last season. He required surgery and about six months of rehabilitation to make it back.
Lattimore was taken to the hospital for further evaluation and it was announced in the postgame he was out indefinitely.
"He's going to do wonderful things," the coach said, while acknowledging, "I don't know what field of life."
Connor Shaw threw for three touchdowns and a career-high 356 yards. He also ran for another as the Gamecocks snapped a two-game losing streak. Lattimore had a 28-yard touchdown run, extending his school marks to 41 TDs overall and 38 rushing.
The Gamecocks rolled up 510 yards after managing only 368 combined the previous two weeks in losses at LSU and Florida. Tight end Justice Cunningham had six catches for 108 yards and receiver Bruce Ellington had six catches for 101 yards as South Carolina won its third straight over Tennessee for the first time ever in a series that began in 1903.
Bray passed for 368 yards and four touchdowns.
The Gamecocks hoped to get their offense back on track and Lattimore was a huge part of that plan. He had been slowed by a hip bruise sustained at LSU two weeks ago, limiting him to just three carries in a 44-11 loss at Florida last Saturday. But Spurrier said he was at 100 percent and ready to once again carry the load for South Carolina.
And Lattimore was doing just that, gaining 65 yards in the opening half, including a 28-yard burst for his 41st career touchdown at South Carolina. Everything stopped at Williams-Brice Stadium when Lattimore lay on the turf after a 2-yard pickup right before halftime.
Lattimore was wrapped up from behind by linebacker Herman Lathers as defensive back Eric Gordon came in at the knees. Lattimore's body whipped around, his right leg slamming against the ground.
Trainers immediately rushed out to South Carolina's star, holding him against the ground as he tried to lift up and see what was going on. Lattimore appeared to be sobbing in pain.
After several minutes, Tennessee players came out to wish Lattimore well. South Carolina's players, coaches and staff soon followed and the group surrounded Lattimore as trainers lifted him onto the cart. The crowd chanted Lattimore's name as the cart pulled away, Lattimore's head covered with a towel heading toward the locker room.
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything like that," Spurrier said.
Messages of support filled Twitter from the sports world, including U.S. women's soccer star Abby Wambach, LSU coach Les Miles and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Spurrier was not surprised, saying Lattimore was loved and admired by many because of his work ethic and attitude.
"As a person, there is none better that I've ever met," the coach said.
South Carolina looked in control most of the half, scoring on three of its first four possessions. Shaw threw touchdown passes of 33 yards to Bruce Ellington and 26 yards to Rory Anderson before Lattimore's TD run.
Tennessee cut the lead to 21-14 on Bray's 37-yard scoring throw to Rogers, the duo's second TD pass of the half. But Shaw ended a 10-play drive on a 1-yard touchdown run with 14 seconds left before the half to restore the Gamecocks' two-touchdown lead.