Tennessee dropped its first game of the Josh Heupel era Saturday as Pitt controlled the line of scrimmage and the game, defeating the Vols 41-34.
The Vols played two quarterbacks and were plagued by injuries and penalties in the first test of the Heupel era.
Here are five quick takeaways.
Vols Start Fast But Miss Opportunities
Tennessee started quickly against Bowling Green a week ago and etched it up to another level this week. Theo Jackson blew up a wide receiver screen on the first play from scrimmage as the Vols quickly forced a three-and-out.
Then, freshman defensive back Christian Charles broke through the middle of Pitt’s punt protection, blocking Kirk Christodoulou’s punt and giving the Vols first-and-goal at the two-yard line. One play later, Jabari Small broke up the middle for the touchdown.
Tennessee’s defense would force three-and-outs on Pitt’s first three drives.
The Vols offense had chances to throw overtop the Panthers’ offense on their second and third drive, but couldn’t capitalize. Jalin Hyatt dropped— and was injured— on a beautiful deep ball from Joe Milton.
Milton missed a handful of deep passes, including a wide open Cedric Tillman on Tennessee’s third drive that should have been an easy touchdown.
Still, Heupel was dialed in and the Vols went 31 yards in 10 plays and Chase McGrath drilled a 37-yard field goal to give UT a 10-0 lead.
The missed opportunities would prove critical as Pitt’s offense came alive in the second quarter.
Pitt Controls Both Lines Of Scrimmage
With center Cooper Mays out, Tennessee’s offensive line had an even greater challenge against a strong Pitt front four.
On the Vols first three drives the offensive line held up well but from there Pitt took control. Tennessee’s running backs tallied 14 yards on 11 first half carries as Pat Narduzzi’s defense made the Vols’ one dimensional.
After Pitt took a 14-13 lead— its first of the game— Keyshon Camp sacked Joe Milton, injuring the Vols’ quarterback and knocking the ball free as the momentum continued to swing towards the Panthers in the second quarter.
Pitt would record another strip sack in the third quarter and lived in Tennessee’s backfield throughout the game. In total, the Panthers recorded x sacks.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee’s defense did a good job of shutting down a limited Pitt run game.
However, Tennessee couldn’t create any pass rush against the Panthers’ veteran offensive line. Pickett had all day to throw throughout the game and made Tennessee pay. The redshirt-senior completed 24-of-36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns
The Vols had just two sacks with one being only two yards as Theo Jackson tackled Pickett from behind on a scramble.
Press The Kicking Game, Here Is Where The Breaks Are Made
On the day honoring Johnny Majors, Tennessee took the Vols’ greatest head coach Robert Neyland’s Sixth Game Maxim to heart. The Vols special teams were fantastic in the loss.
Christian Charles blocked the punt that set up Tennessee’s first touchdown and the Vols’ kick and punt coverage was fantastic. Pitt started its first three drives at its own 16-yard line, two-yard line and eight yard-line thanks to excellent kick coverage and a great Paxton Brooks punt.
After Pitt’s kick return to the eight-yard line, the Panthers declined to return kickoffs the rest of the game either fair catching them or taking a knee.
Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath performed well in his second game at Tennessee, drilling both of his field goal attempts.
In the second quarter, Tennessee had a first-and-goal at the five yard line before three penalties backed Tennessee up to the 37-yard line. The Vols would get seven yards back on third down and McGrath made sure the drive wasn’t all for naught, drilling a 47-yard field goal.
Velus Jones Jr. was excellent returning kicks, averaging 30.5 yards per return.
Hooker Debuts As Milton Is Injured
Joe Milton showed some of the bad that he did in his Tennessee debut a week ago, missing deep throws down the field. The Michigan transfer did some good things too, however. Milton was on time on the short and intermediate passes where he was inconsistent last week.
Milton also made plays with his legs, tallying 54 yards on five carries— including sacks.
The transfer quarterback was knocked out of the game in the second quarter and even though he returned to the sidelines and warmed up, he didn’t return. We will update Milton’s status when UT provides updates.
Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker replaced Milton and after a shaky start, Hooker settled in and was very effective.
Jimmy Calloway— who missed last week’s game due to injury— jumpstarted Hooker’s day by catching a screen and tiptoeing down the sideline for a 44-yard touchdown.
Hooker ended the day 15-of-21 with 189 yards passing, 48 yards rushing, two touchdowns and an interception.
Where Hooker proved particularly effective was with his feet. With his offensive line struggling, Hooker’s legs kept Tennessee’s offense on the field, including on a 23 yard scramble on third-and-15. The dual-threat quarterback ended that drive with his best throw of the day, finding tight end Jacob Warren over the middle for a nine-yard touchdown.
Hooker would make one critical mistake late, not seeing safety Brandon Hill on a post route leading to a late fourth quarter interception with Tennessee trailing by seven.
Injuries and Penalties
Tennessee started the day poorly with three of its starters being ruled out before the game. That injury bug continued into the game.
The second half of the Vols one-two running back punch, Jabari Small, was injured late in the first half and wouldn’t return. The Vols had to roll with freshman Jaylen Wright almost exclusively at tailback in the second half.
We already discussed Milton and Jalin Hyatt’s injury but neither of those players returned. Hyatt is perhaps Tennessee’s best receiver.
The Vols killed themselves with penalties, recording 13 penalties for 134 yards. Pitt on the other hand committed just nine penalties for 76 yards.