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Sloppy Play, Missed Opportunities Cost Tennessee Against Pitt

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee never led after the 10 minute mark in the second quarter and trailed by two touchdowns for much of the second half in Pitt’s 41-34 win at Neyland Stadium Saturday. Still, missed opportunities were abound in the Vols’ week two loss.

The Panthers controlled the game following a dominant first quarter from Tennessee where Pitt recorded a trio of three-and-outs and the Vols’ offense moved the ball well. 

Pitt’s ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball— particularly on defense— made Tennessee’s seven to 14 point deficit feel larger at times. However, there Tennessee was with the ball deep in Pitt’s territory twice in the game’s final 10 minutes with a chance to tie the game.

A controversial spot, a blown up fourth down run and an interceptions meant two missed opportunities on a day that was defined by missed opportunities for Tennessee.

“A ton of things that had the opportunity to change the football game,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said postgame. “From the communication side, to turnovers, to opportunities in the red zone that we didn’t take advantage of. All those things are true.”

That started in the Vols’ dominant first quarter. Jalin Hyatt couldn’t haul in a beautiful Joe Milton deep ball that would have put Tennessee ahead 14-0 early. The next drive Milton missed a wide open— and I mean wide open— Cedric Tillman for what could have been an easy touchdown.

Then, after a Pitt touchdown that cut Tennessee’s lead to 10-7, Milton broke off a 54-yard run that gave the Vols first-and-goal at the five-yard line. The Vols went backwards from there, losing 32 yards on penalties before kicker Chase McGrath bailed the drive out, making 48-yard field goal.

Those three— especially the latter two— scoring opportunities burned Tennessee badly. The Panthers took control of the game after McGrath’s field goal.

“It’s obvious what plays we left out there,” tight end Jacob Warren said. “There’s a lot of things y’all don’t see that happens— not just quarterbacks overthrowing people or people dropping the ball. There’s a lot of stuff in the interior and the outside where people are making mistakes. We just have to clean it up.”

The missed scoring opportunities were just the start of it though. Tennessee turned the ball over three times while Pitt didn’t turn it over once.

The first two Tennessee turnovers were quarterback fumbles. One from Joe Milton and another from Hendon Hooker. Each gave Pitt the ball inside the Vols’ 30-yard line. 

The last turnover effectively ended the game as Hooker stared down Jimmy Calloway too long on the skinny post leading to a Brandon Hill interception.

Then there were the penalties that plagued Tennessee, especially its offense, all game. The Vols committed 13 penalties for a whopping 134 yards. A number that nickel Theo Jackson physically winced at when he heard during his postgame interview.

Five of those penalties were pre snap offensive penalties that backed up the Vols offense. Pitt, playing on the road in front of an announced crowd of 82,203 had just one pre snap penalty.

“It did surprise me,” Heupel said of the sloppy play. “It’s not who we’ve been. … There’s a lot of things 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 play in penalty from snap to whistle. If you compete and play hard occasionally those things are going to happen. Obviously we don’t want them to as a coach or a player but the things that you can control you can’t do. … You add up all those little things and there’s a lot of areas to change the scoreboard.”

Those mistakes buried a Tennessee offense that despite totaling just 33 yards on 19 carries from its running backs scored 34 points— a total that would have been the Vols’ third highest a year ago.

Those missed opportunities, mistakes and penalties caused Tennessee to drop an incredibly winnable and meaningful game for Heupel’s young team.

Now the Vols must figure out the plan at quarterback before heading to Gainesville in two weeks to face Florida. Unless the Vols pull the shocker of all shockers at ‘The Swamp’ Heupel and his squad will head into a critical October needing to overachieve to make a bowl game in 2021.

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