Three Keys: Tennessee Looking For Statement Win At Pitt

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    Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

    Tennessee heads to Pittsburgh looking for its first top 25 win of the season and second of the Josh Heupel era against the 17th-ranked Panthers.

    The Vols lost a thriller to Pitt inside Neyland Stadium a season ago in a game that proved to be Hendon Hooker’s coming out party despite a costly fourth quarter interception.

    Tennessee is a 6.5-point road favorite as it looks to improve to 2-0 on the season.

    Here are three keys to a Tennessee victory.

    Make Kedon Slovis Beat You

    Pitt parted ways with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple this offseason despite a banner 2021 season for the Panthers’ offense and head coach Pat Narduzzi criticized Whipple for his unwillingness to run the ball in the offseason.

    That thought process manifested itself in Pitt’s opener when new quarterback Kedon Slovis threw the ball just 24 times while the Panthers’ offense ran 38 times.

    Pitt wants to establish the run, and in a game like this, keep Tennessee’s offense on the sidelines for a long period of time. Neither Pitt’s rushing game nor Tennessee’s defensive line played up to its potential a week ago. It bodes well for Tennessee if it can limit Pitt’s run game and put the pressure on Kedon Slovis.

    Pitt’s offense staying in front of the sticks and getting into third-and-short is how the Panthers can stay on the field and keep Tennessee’s offense on the sideline. That’s Pitt’s path to a victory.

    If Tennessee makes Pitt put the ball in Slovis’ hands where the transfer quarterback must make plays to win than I think Tennessee’s defense does enough to get the job done.

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    Find Success Running The Ball

    Stopping the run is Pitt’s bread-and-butter as a football program. A season ago, Tennessee running backs totaled just 33 yards on 19 carries.

    Granted, Hendon Hooker and Joe Milton combined for 103 yards on the ground, but the Vols couldn’t just line up and run at Pitt. That was particularly detrimental on a crucial fourth-and-one stop deep in Pitt’s territory in the fourth quarter.

    In Pitt’s season opening win against West Virginia, the Mountaineers ran the ball for 190 yards including 125 yards from freshman CJ Donaldson. If Tennessee has that type of success running the ball, it could be a long afternoon for Pitt’s defense.

    Tennessee is going to make plays in the pass game against an inexperienced Pitt secondary. If the Vols run the ball effectively — especially in short yardage situations — this could be a big afternoon for Josh Heupel’s offense. It makes Pitt’s path to a victory extremely narrow as well.

    Start Fast

    This has not been a problem for Tennessee under head coach Josh Heupel. In Heupel’s four matchups as a head coach against Pittsburgh, his offense has gotten off to fast starts against Narduzzi’s team each time.

    The Vols had opportunities to build a big first quarter lead against Pitt a season ago but failed to capitalize due in large part to Joe Milton’s overthrows. Tennessee still led at the end of the first quarter but not by as much as they should have.

    That gave eventual Heisman Finalist Kenny Pickett plenty of chances to pull back ahead and he did just that in a 27-point second quarter.

    Pickett is off to the NFL and as outlined in the first section, Pitt’s offense has moved away from being a pass first team. If Tennessee jumps out to a large first quarter lead, I’m not sure this Pitt offense is equipped to adequately respond.

    Ryan Schumpert is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. Ryan spent three years with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program before joining RTI. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.