Tennessee was up to the challenge on Saturday. However, the Vols were unable to take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.
Tennessee dropped a 41-34 decision to Pitt in the Johnny Majors Classic at Neyland Stadium.
“I told the players in the locker room, obviously, we’re disappointed with the outcome,” Tennessee Head Coach Josh Heupel said. “A ton of things that had the opportunity to change the course of the football game, from a communication side to turnovers to opportunities in the red zone that we didn’t take advantage of. All of those things are true.”
“But also told them this, this defines today,” Heupel said. “It does not define this journey that this football team is on. I think it is important that they understand that. This is who we are in week two against Pitt. There’s a lot of things that are controllable that we have an opportunity to get a whole lot better at.”
Heupel’s Volunteer squad was plagued by penalty issues the entire game as the Orange and White had 13 penalties for 134 yards.
“It did surprise me,” Heupel said of the penalties. “It’s not who we’ve been. From taking our helmet off in celebration early and changing field position a little bit. We showed those things that happened across the country in our Monday meeting.”
“I think we’re 1st-and-7 on the goal line by the student section, then had a couple things transpire and end up kicking a field goal. There are a bunch of things that we have to be better at as competitors.”
Tennessee also had three turnovers and missed a couple of deep throws early that hampered the effort.
Momentum certainly started on the home team’s side.
After the Tennessee defense forced a three-and-out, Christian Charles blocked a Panther punt to set UT up at the Pitt 2-yard line. It took one play for Jabari Small to score to give Tennessee a 7-0 lead after the Chase McGrath extra point.
The teams traded possessions – including two Panther three-and-outs – before McGrath added a 37-yard field goal with just under five minutes left in the quarter to give Tennessee a 10-0 advantage.
The Panthers, however, started to get the offense rolling on their next drive and opened the second quarter when Kenny Pickett hit Melquise Stovall for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Vols used a big run from Joe Milton to get inside the Pitt 5-yard line, but three costly penalties pushed Tennessee back to the 31 where they had to settle for a McGrath field goal.
Pitt picked up where they left off as they raced down the field and scored when Jared Way hit Lucas Krull for a 16-yard touchdown – off a Pickett lateral. That score gave the Panthers a 20-14 advantage midway through the quarter.
The Tennessee defense rose to the occasion on a pair of drives in the later stages of the second quarter – holding Pitt to just two field goals as they increased their lead to 20-13.
The Volunteer offense captured some momentum as Hendon Hooker – who replaced Milton after an injury – hit Jimmy Calloway for a 44-yard touchdown as UT tied the game at 20-20 with just over two minutes before half.
Pitt regained a 27-20 lead in the final seconds of the half with a Vincent Davis run from two yards out.
The teams combined for 37 points in the second quarter.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, Tennesee lost a fumble, but Pitt was forced to a three-and-out.
Neither team was able to get back on the scoreboard until just under five minutes when the Panthers pushed the lead to 34-20.
However, Tennessee fought back with an impressive drive that was capped off when Hooker found Jacob Warren for an eight-yard touchdown.
UT trailed 34-27 after three complete quarters.
Pitt struck early in the final quarter as Pickett hit Jordan Addison for a five-yard touchdown. Tennessee battled back once again as Jaylen Wright capped off a quick drive to pull the Volunteers back within seven with 10 minutes remaining.
The Tennessee defense once again held Pitt to a three-and-out, and the Vols marched to the Pitt 4 on the drive. The Volunteer offense was stopped on fourth-and-one – despite looking like they converted the third down but replay stayed with the call on the field.
Once again, the Tennessee offense stayed strong to force a three-and-out, and a short punt set the Tennessee offense up at the Pitt 34.
On the second play of the drive, Hooker’s pass was intercepted and the Panthers were able to run out the clock to take the win.
“You want to finish,” Heupel said of the last two drives. “We talked about finishing the fourth quarter and emphasizing that. Just how our practice unfolds, we have a fourth-quarter period and we make an emphasis that we’re going to play the right way. There were a lot of good things in the fourth quarter, but not enough in those crucial moments on the offensive side of the football.”
“Fourth and short, we had a chance to go punch it in. Had great field position, the defense goes out and gets a stop, we go after him, he shanks a punt, really good field position, and don’t close it out. We have to grow up fast. We have good teams on the schedule and we’re capable of being a whole lot better than we are today. We have to take ownership of that collectively and as a team.”
Milton was Tennessee’s leading rusher as he had 54 total yards on five carries, while Hooker had 49 yards on nine carries.
Through the air, Hooker was 15-of-21 for 188 yards, while Milton was 7-of-12 for 50 yards.
Despite the performance, Heupel was quick to note that the quarterback situation was a game-by-game decision.
“It’s game by game evaluation,” Heupel said. “It’s true for everybody. We’re on this 12 game journey, that’s all we get guaranteed and you take it one week at a time. That’s a message that’s always true, when you win a big one and when you lose one.”
“I think it’s important that our players buy in to the process of what it takes to become a high-level football team and program. It’s little things in who we are and how we conduct ourselves that ultimately show up and are part of how we play. There are things we have to continue to grow in as a football team.”
Small finished with 18 yards before leaving the game with an injury.
Calloway had 59 receiving yards on three catches while Warren had 55 yards on five catches.
“We didn’t want to look at the scoreboard until it ticked to zero and that we were going to compete until the very last tick,” Heupel said. “I am proud of our football team because I think they did that. We weren’t perfect in how we competed, but we did compete.”
Tennessee is set to return to action next Saturday as Tennessee Tech visits Neyland Stadium.
Kickoff is set for noon.
Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletic Communications