Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker found Cedric Tillman open in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown in overtime, and the Big Orange defense came up with a monumental stop as the 24th-ranked Volunteers took down No. 17 Pittsburgh on the road, 34-27, capping a thrilling edition of the Johnny Majors Classic on Saturday at Acrisure Field.
Tennessee (2-0) improves to 14-9 all-time in overtime games, breaking a tie with Arkansas for the most overtime wins in NCAA history. The victory also marked Tennessee’s first road triumph over a top-20 non-conference foe since defeating No. 6 Miami (Fla.), 10-6, on Nov. 8, 2003.
The Vols have produced top-20 road wins in back-to-back seasons after knocking off No. 18 Kentucky, 45-42, last year in Lexington.
With the game knotted at 27-27 at the end of regulation, Pittsburgh (1-1) won the overtime coin toss and deferred. Facing 2nd-and-13 after a holding penalty, Hooker danced around the pocket and fired a dart to Tillman, who stopped on a dime to pull in the game-clinching score. Redshirt senior placekicker Chase McGrath knocked through his fourth PAT of the game to put the Vols ahead 34-27 and one stop away from securing the win.
The Tennessee defense stymied the Panthers in overtime, headlined by a 12-yard sack from super senior safety Trevon Flowers on the game’s final third down. Facing fourth-and-goal from the 20-yard line, Pitt QB Nick Patti’s pass over the middle fell incomplete to solidify the Volunteer victory.
Hooker led the Big Orange aerial attack completing 27-of-42 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. The redshirt senior from Greensboro, North Carolina, has a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive games, the second longest streak in program history, and posted the fourth 300-yard passing game of his career.
Tillman led all pass catchers with 162 yards on nine receptions, marking his sixth-career game with more than 100 yards receiving and the second-highest single-game receiving output for the fifth-year senior. Junior wideout Jalin Hyatt had a career-high and game-high 11 receptions for 73 yards, while redshirt junior receiver Bru McCoy pulled in his first touchdown as a Vol and finished the game with four catches for 58 yards.
Sophomore running back Jaylen Wright led the Vols on the ground with nine carries for a team-high 47 yards, while junior Jabari Small took 10 carries for 17 yards, including a pair of one-yard scores for his third-career multi-touchdown performance.
Senior linebacker Aaron Beasley tied his career-high with 14 total tackles to lead all players on Saturday, including a three-yard tackle for loss, his first career pass breakup and a career-high tying three quarterback hurries. Edge rushers Tyler Baron and Byron Young each posted four tackles, two TFLs and one sack, while Baron notched his first-career strip sack and Flowers nabbed his fourth-career interception to complement his heroic sack in overtime. In total, the Big Orange defensive unit posted four sacks and nine TFLs in the road victory.
Pittsburgh saw valiant effort from its leading tailback in Israel Abanikanda, who carried the ball 25 times for 154 yards—including a breakaway 76-yard score in the first quarter. Starting quarterback Kedon Slovis was 14-of-24 for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception before exiting the game at halftime due to injury. Patti played the entire second half and overtime, completing 9-of-20 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
After a Tennessee three-and-out to begin the game, Pitt put together a nine-play, 43-yard drive that the Volunteer defense stalled in the red zone. The Panthers settled for a 30-yard field goal as Ben Sauls’ first boot of the afternoon sailed through the uprights to give Pitt an early 3-0 advantage.
The Vols were unable to gain any offensive momentum on their second drive, going three-and-out for the second-straight possession. Pitt’s lead expanded to double digits on the next offensive play when Abanikanda rushed up the middle and dashed 76 yards to the end zone. Sauls’ point after attempt put the Panthers ahead 10-0 with 9:00 remaining in the first quarter.
The Panthers took aim at a three-possession lead late in the first quarter, but a tipped pass in the back of the end zone fell into the waiting arms of Flowers—who got his feet down in bounds to force Pitt’s first turnover of the ballgame.
The Vols capitalized on Flowers’ pick with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to break up the shutout and pull within three points of the Panthers with 1:02 left in the opening stanza. Hooker completed five passes for 64 yards on the series, including a 24-yard connection with tight end Jacob Warren that put the Vols one yard away from the end zone. Small finished it off with his second rushing score in as many games, and McGrath nailed his 145th consecutive PAT to cut the margin to 10-7.
Pitt regained its 10-point lead on the next possession with a 57-yard touchdown catch-and-run down the right sideline to tight end Gavin Bartholomew, who hurdled a Tennessee tackler in the secondary before plodding into the end zone. Sauls was true on the PAT to put the Panthers ahead 17-7 with 13:25 to go in the first half.
The back-and-forth affair continued on the following UT series when the Vols orchestrated a nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive, capped by McCoy’s first touchdown as a Vol with a 32-yard scoring grab inside the back-left pylon. McGrath’s extra point pulled the Vols within three once again, 17-14, with 10:03 remaining in the second quarter.
Tennessee kept momentum on its side when redshirt junior DB Wesley Walker landed a seven-yard sack on fourth down to force a Pittsburgh turnover on downs inside UT territory. On the very next play, Hooker connected with Tillman down the right sideline on a physical 61-yard reception—carrying a Panther defender on his back 10-plus yards before being dragged down at the half-yard line. Small punched it in for his second touchdown of the afternoon, giving Tennessee its first lead of the game with 4:56 to go in the quarter. McGrath’s third successful PAT made it a 21-17 Big Orange advantage.
In the waning moments of the first half, Tennessee gained another opportunity to score when Baron’s strip sack was recovered by Omari Thomas at the Pittsburgh 28-yard line. After an eight-yard rush by Wright, McGrath stepped in and converted the 37-yard field goal try to put the Vols up by a touchdown, 24-17, as time expired in the second quarter and both teams headed to the locker room.
Both offenses stalled out of halftime as neither team scored in the third quarter. The Panthers had a pair of chances to add points on two field goals, but Sauls pushed attempts from 46 and 36 yards wide left to keep the Tennessee lead at seven.
After recovering a Tennessee fumble late in the third, the Panthers traveled 27 yards in 12 plays to set up another field goal try. Abanikanda toted seven carries for 26 yards on the series before Sauls knocked through a 35-yard boot to cut Tennessee’s advantage to four points, 24-20, with 14:07 left in the fourth quarter.
The Vols responded with a field goal of their own, as McGrath stepped in and nailed a 51-yarder—his longest in a Tennessee uniform and second-longest of his six-year collegiate career—to cap a 15-play, 41-yard series that used 5:10 of game clock. The drive featured a pair of clutch receptions from UT’s veteran wideouts as McCoy and Tillman converted third and fourth downs, respectively, to keep the sequence alive.
Pittsburgh evened the score with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter when Jared Wayne reeled in a four-yard touchdown pass from Patti on fourth-and-goal. The scoring play capped a 10-play, 39-yard drive as the Panthers took advantage of a muffed punt.
The Vols were unable to enter field goal range on their last drive, and Paxton Brooks punted the ball 40 yards to the Pitt 15-yard line with 19 seconds left in regulation. Patti took a knee on the next play to send the game into overtime.
Tennessee returns home next week for a third consecutive non-conference matchup, playing host to the Akron Zips on Saturday, Sept. 17. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET from Neyland Stadium, and the game will be streamed exclusively online via SEC Network+ or ESPN+.