Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel spoke to the media after the Vols’ 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday. Tennessee fought hard in the Johnny Majors Classic, but ultimately, the team came up short.
After the game, Heupel spoke about his first loss with the Tennessee program. Although, in specific, Heupel discussed the Tennessee QB situation and the latest on Joe Milton. He also talked about some of the offensive strategies in the second half, the Vols plan on defense, and what they can improve on this week in fall camp.
“Appreciate the Majors family for being here and having an opportunity to celebrate everything he’s meant to Tennessee football. I thought it was an awesome way to recognize him and everything he’s done as a player and coach. So, I appreciate his family being here. I told the players in the locker room, obviously we’re disappointed with the outcome. A ton of things that had the opportunity to change the course of the football game, from a communication side to turnovers to opportunities in the red zone that we didn’t take advantage of. All of those things are true. But also told them this, this defines today. It does not define this journey that this football team is on. I think it is important that they understand that. This is who we are in week two against Pitt. There’s a lot of things that are controllable that we have an opportunity to get a whole lot better at. If we do, we can take better advantage of the opportunities that we have in the future in the games that we have. I wanted them to understand, we talked about it all week long, understanding who Pitt is as a football team and where they are at as a program. We didn’t want to look at the scoreboard until it ticked to zero and that we were going to compete until the very last tick. I am proud of our football team because I think they did that. We weren’t perfect in how we competed, but we did compete. We have a bunch of guys banged up. I’m sure there will be questions about injuries. You guys saw that unfold with guys that weren’t able to compete from week one who weren’t out on the field. I don’t have an update on everybody. As we go through this weekend, we will be able to clarify where our guys as far as being ready to play for next week.”
On if Joe Milton couldn’t reenter the game due to injury or if Tennessee decided to make a change-
“He was, couldn’t come back. Hendon did a great job coming off the bench, competing, giving us a chance, making some plays with his feet and being decisive with the ball in his hands. There are things he would want to do better and do differently. Obviously, the last play he had an opportunity on where we turned it over, but I thought our football team rallied around him, believed in him, and he went out there and competed. He fought extremely hard and gave us a chance in the second half.”
On penalty yards-
“It did surprise me. It’s not who we’ve been. From taking our helmet off in celebration early and changing field position a little bit. We showed those things that happened across the country in our Monday meeting. I think we’re 1st-and-7 on the goal line by the student section, then had a couple things transpire and end up kicking a field goal. There are a bunch of things that we have to be better at as competitors. Competitive composure, we talked about it before the game. Obviously, we were not good in those moments. Personal fouls. Occasionally, there’s going to be a plain penalty, from snap to whistle. If you compete and play hard, occasionally those things will happen. You don’t want them to as a coach or player, but things that you can control, you can’t do. It changes the way the game is played. You add up all those little things, there’s a lot of opportunities to change the scoreboard, both offensively and special teams too. I’m disappointed we didn’t take advantage of some of those opportunities.”
On the penalty on the field goal attempt that was returned for a touchdown-
“I don’t know what the right rule is or what is should be. I don’t know if we were in the back or not at the beginning of the return, I just saw the end of it and thought it was clean. Obviously, it had an opportunity to be a big play in the game and change the momentum. It didn’t, then offensively I don’t think that drive we got anything going either. Throughout the course of it, early in the first quarter and defensively, we played really well and didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that we had on offense. Second quarter, the turnovers hurt you. It changed the way the game is played for the defense, just three phases of the game playing together. Simple communication stuff in the fourth quarter, where we ended up burning a couple timeouts early in the third quarter and beginning of the fourth, where you know you’re going to need those in the fourth quarter and try to get a stop to give yourself one more chance.”
On Hendon Hooker being the starting quarterback moving forward-
“We’re going to go back and look at the tape and evaluate everybody. We’ll evaluate the quarterback position as well, but we’ll evaluate everyone and how they played so that may be more opportunities for guys and some of it may just be cleaning up some things that they can control and be better at.”
On if the lack of forced turnovers surprises him and Tyler Baron’s health status-
“He was nicked up with a couple of different things during the course of the game today specifically. I talked with our trainer multiple times about him.
“Defensively, we emphasize (forcing turnovers). It’s how we start every practice. We come out and any skill guy defensively is catching balls pre-practice and post-practice so that when you have an opportunity to get your hands on it and make a play, we’ve done everything that we could. Yes, we’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been able to create a game-changing play on that side of it. I don’t think it’s lack of effort or our practice, we just haven’t made the ball bounce the right way.”
On if he considers the starting quarterback for next week a big decision or a game by game call-
“It’s game by game evaluation. It’s true for everybody. We’re on this 12 game journey, that’s all we get guaranteed and you take it one week at a time. That’s a message that’s always true, when you win a big one and when you lose one. I think it’s important that our players buy in to the process of what it takes to become a high-level football team and program. It’s little things in who we are and how we conduct ourselves that ultimately show up and are part of how we play. There are things we have to continue to grow in as a football team.”
On running out of the shotgun in short-yardage situations-
“It’s not all that we do. There are things that we’ve done from under center. Felt like we had a good plan, but didn’t execute in that moment for sure.”
On if Hooker had an option to switch into another play on Tennessee’s failed fourth down attempt and if he believed that Hooker reached the line to gain on third down-
“He didn’t have an option off of that. Communication up front to what we’re doing and how we’re blocking and how we’re doing things didn’t transpire the way it needed to. Didn’t feel like he got to the yard to gain on his (third down) run. I was in communication with the side judge to make sure that they were reviewing the spot. Those are tough situations, you don’t want to burn a timeout in those situations, but you’re trying to make sure that those things are being reviewed.”
On Tennessee’s final two drives on offense-
“You want to finish. We talked about finishing the fourth quarter and emphasizing that. Just how our practice unfolds, we have a fourth quarter period and we make an emphasis that we’re going to play the right way. There were a lot of good things in the fourth quarter, but not enough in those crucial moments on the offensive side of the football. Fourth and short, we had a chance to go punch it in. Had great field position, defense goes out and gets a stop, we go after him, he shanks a punt, really good field position and don’t close it out. We have to grow up fast. We have good teams on the schedule and we’re capable of being a whole lot better than we are today. We have to take ownership of that collectively and as a team.”
Josh Heupel postgame press conference transcript courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.