HomeFootballTennessee FootballTennessee 34, Pitt 27: 10 points

Tennessee 34, Pitt 27: 10 points

No. 24 Tennessee traveled to Pittsburgh Saturday and came away with a 34-27 overtime win against the No. 17 Panthers. Here are 10 things that stood out: 

1.) Shifting expectations. It’s weird how quickly our expectations can shift. If you had told me going in that Tennessee would beat Pittsburgh by a touchdown in overtime, I would’ve taken it. Not that I didn’t expect the Vols to win the game; I fully did. But it was a road game against a ranked opponent that also happens to be the defending ACC champion. However, circumstances changed as the game progressed, and Pitt played the second half with a one-legged backup quarterback. Tennessee wasted multiple opportunities to salt the game away, instead winding up in an overtime struggle against a team that was clearly inferior. It was hard for me to celebrate what otherwise would’ve been an exhilarating win. I don’t want to be unfair, because it was a road win against a ranked opponent. And considering that it’s been well over a decade since Tennessee won anything meaningful, Vol fans aren’t hardly in a place to act spoiled. But I just can’t get excited about the Vols’ performance tonight.

2.) The defense carried the offense. That was exactly how we all thought it was going to turn out, right? The offense was going to struggle and the defense was going to save the day? 

3.) Props to the defense. The biggest criticism against Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks in 2021 was that he coached too soft. Many felt that he was attempting to mask the weaknesses of his defense with conservative play-calling that often resulted in the Vols giving up too many yards and too many points. Former UT quarterback Erik Ainge pointed out prior to Tennessee’s season-opener against Ball State that Tennessee needed to bring more heat defensively, even if it means occasionally getting beat and giving up a big play. Tonight, Tennessee brought the heat. Credit Banks’ play-calling. He blitz early and often, and the end result was 16 QB hurries for the Vols — their most in many years — and four sacks. Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis did a good job of standing in and completing passes while taking hits in the first half, but you just couldn’t help but feel that if the Vols continued to bring pressure, they would eventually affect Pitt’s offensive success. And they did — not in the least because they knocked Slovis out of the game with a possible concussion.

4.) The defense changed the game. Tennessee was down 10-0 late in the first quarter, and Pitt was driving to make it 17-0. At that point, the game might well have been over. But Trayvon Flowers made an interception in the back of the end zone, the first of two huge takeaways by the Vols’ defense in the first half. That flipped the momentum and allowed Tennessee to get back into it. The second huge takeaway was the sack-fumble that knocked Slovis out of the game. Nobody wants to see someone unable to play because of an injury, but the game changed completely when Pitt lost Slovis. Credit backup quarterback Nick Patti for attempting to keep the Pittsburgh offense moving in the second half, especially after he was suffered a leg injury that left him with a noticeable limp for the remainder of the game. But, clearly, Patti isn’t the same quarterback that Slovis is. Let’s just call it like it is: If Slovis plays the second half, Pitt wins the game.

5.) With that said… I don’t want to make it sound like that Tennessee suddenly has a stellar defense, because Florida is going to expose us a little bit in a couple of weeks, and so will most of the other SEC teams we play. Vols fans knew that UT had to make strides on the defensive side of the ball in order to be competitive in league play this season, and hopefully we saw today that some strides have been made. But this defense didn’t suddenly go from one of the worst in the SEC to one of the best in one offseason. Tennessee is still hampered by some weaknesses on defense — including a lack of speed at the linebacker and defensive back positions. But whereas last year Banks hesitated to bring extra pressure because he didn’t want to leave his guys on an island in pass coverage, he was willing to dial up blitzes tonight, and it helped make up for the weaknesses at times. Let’s hope that’s a lesson learned. Tennessee will face better offensive lines than it faced today in Pittsburgh, but that is a veteran Pitt front, with almost all seniors on the line. Obviously the biggest sack was the one by Flowers in overtime, which turned a 3rd and goal from the 8-yard-line into 4th and goal from the 20.

6.) One more note on the defense: Israel Abanikanda had a career-high 154 yards on 25 carries. It was disheartening to see just how many rushing yards Pitt had, considering the Panthers aren’t a very effective team at running the football. With that said, if you take away Abanikanda’s 76-yard run in the second quarter, he finishes with 78 yards and averages only 3.1 yards per carry instead of 6.2 yards per carry. I was somewhat surprised to see that, even with Abanikanda’s 76-yard run, Pitt averaged only 3.6 yards per carry as a team. It felt like they had more success than that. But, as it turns out, if you take away the big touchdown run, Pitt averaged just 1.7 yards per carry for the game. That’s not a bad effort by Tennessee’s defense. The Panthers finished with more than 400 yards of offense, but all in all it wasn’t a bad effort by UT’s defense. It was a solid outing. And that was a good thing, because the Vols needed every ounce of it. Tennessee’s defense stopped five rushing attempts in the backfield, and continued to lock down in OT, including stopping Abanikanda three yards behind the line of scrimmage on the Panthers’ first play. Granted, Pitt eventually converted a 4th down to keep hope alive, but it became apparent that even though the Panthers used the run successfully to tie the game late, they were not going to be able to win the game in OT by running the football.

7.) Second-guessing the coach. Would Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi have gone for two and the win if he had scored in OT? Probably not, but I would have, in that situation. In fact, I would’ve gone for two when the Panthers scored late in the 4th quarter. They had a backup quarterback who was playing hurt, and Tennessee was playing with a veteran playmaker at QB. The personnel situation favored the Vols substantially in OT, and if I were Narduzzi, I would’ve taken my one shot to get three yards in one play and potentially win the game in regulation.

8.) An awful offensive effort. Okay, we might as well talk about the elephant in the room. After a bad start by Tennessee’s offense, with two 3-and-out series to begin the game, the Vols finally got on track with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the first quarter, which was capped by a one-yard touchdown run by Jabari Small after Hendon Hooker hit tight end Jacob Warren for 24 yards to the goal line. That led to a very good second quarter for Tennessee. It was business as usual, and it was starting to look like UT might run away with it in the second half — especially when Slovis was knocked out of the game. But then came the second half, which was just awful … especially the third quarter. Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said after the game that he would give the Vols’ offense a “C.” I think that’s being generous. Tennessee might well have wound up with a “C” for the year but they certainly failed the second semester. It was a putrid offensive performance in the second half, and it extended beyond the 11 players on the field. Playcalling felt unimaginative. On the field, Hooker continues to be a little shaky. I noted after the Vols’ win over Ball State that I expected more out of Hooker. And I certainly expected more out of the 6th-year senior today. He looked a lot like the 2021 version of Joe Milton in the 1st quarter, overthrowing everybody. With that said, he threw for more than 300 yards and had two touchdowns to no interceptions, and he had some very nice throws. Tennessee’s rushing attack was non-existent. Granted, Pitt’s defense is tooled to stop the run, but the Vols averaged only 2.6 yards per carry. They have to beef that up heading into SEC play.

9.) What about special teams? I don’t want to just pick on the offense. When Tennessee was missing out on chance after chance to salt the game away in the second half, the offense was about 40% at fault. Special teams were the other 60%, as UT had a punt blocked and muffed a punt. That’s the equivalent of two turnovers. Fortunately, Pitt’s special teams were nearly as bad, and the Panthers missed two chip-shot field goal attempts. As a result, Pitt scored on only one of its five possessions in the red zone, which is a miserable percentage. Otherwise, the Panthers would have won the game.

10.) All things considered… At the end of the day, it was still a win over a ranked opponent on the road. Will Tennessee beat Florida playing the way it played today? Not even close, not even at home. And the Georgia and Alabama games? Let’s not even go there. The Vols will struggle against the likes of LSU and Kentucky and perhaps even South Carolina if they play the way they did today. But those games are all weeks and even months away … which means there’s time to get better. For now, the Vols beat a ranked opponent on the road. That’s certainly better than, say, losing to Appalachian State at home, which is exactly what happened to No. 16 Texas A&M today. An ugly win is better than a pretty loss, they say, so I suppose we should embrace the ugly win. After all, UT fans haven’t had enough wins to celebrate in the past 14 years — ugly or pretty or otherwise. And if you’re looking for something to cheer you up, consider this: Even though Pitt knew that Cedric Tillman was the player most likely to beat them, Tillman had nine receptions for 162 yards. And for the Vols’ passing game to be at its best, Tennessee needs another receiver (most likely Jalin Hyatt or Bru McCoy) to step up. Today, Hyatt stepped up, with 11 receptions. And McCoy looked good, too.

Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor and publisher. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett, or email him at bgarrett at ihoneida dot com.

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