Vols fight hard, can’t come out on top against Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh wide receiver Melquise Stovall (4) catches a touchdown pass in front of Tennessee defensive back Theo Jackson (26) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn.

KNOXVILLE – Tennessee and Pitt paid homage to legendary head coach Johnny Majors as they met Saturday at Neyland Stadium and it was the Panthers who came out on top in a wild affair, 41-34.

The Johnny Major Classic lit up the scoreboard as the Volunteers finished the game with 374 yards and the Panthers having 397. Tennessee’s defense was outstanding early on the Panthers only managed 12 total yards in their first three drives but after that, they scored three touchdowns and two field goals and didn’t punt as they built a 27-20 lead at the half. The Vols trailed by two touchdowns twice in the second half but kept fighting.

Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said he liked his team’s ability to keep plugging away but execution was a problem against the Panthers. “I told the players in the locker room that I was disappointed in the outcome. There are a ton of things that had an opportunity to change the football game from communications to turnovers to opportunities in the red zone we didn’t take advantage of. All of those things are true. But we also told them today doesn’t define the journey this football team is on and it’s important they understand that. We weren’t perfect in how we competed but we did compete.”

The Vols shot themselves in the foot as they committed 13 penalties for 134 yards and committed three turnovers with two fumbles and an interception. Joe Milton III was 7-of-12 for 50 yards before getting hurt in the second quarter. Replacement Hendon Hooker came into the contest in relief and kept the Vols in it as he finished 15-for-21 for 189 yards, two scores and a pick. He also ran for 49 yards. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett showed why he will have an excellent chance to be playing on Sundays next year as he went 24-for-36 for 285 yards with two touchdowns. His favorite receiver was Taysir Mack who finished the day with 100 yards on four receptions.

“Hendon did great job coming off the bench, competing and giving us a chance,” Heupel said of his backup quarterback’s performance. “He made plays with his feet and was decisive with the ball in his hands. Our team rallied around him and believed in him and he went out there and competed extremely hard and gave us a chance in the second half.”

Things started splendidly for the Volunteers as true freshman Christian Charles blocked a Pitt punt that was fell on at the two and one play later, Jabari Small went in for the score. The defense held again and got the Vols the ball back and Chase McGrath booted through a 37-yard field goal to put Tennessee up 10-0.

Then came the second quarter. On the very first play, Pickett hit Melquise Stovall for an 11-yard score to cap a 92-yard Pitt drive. On a designed quarterback draw, Milton rumbled for 56 yards all the way to the Panthers’ five yard line but then the wheels fell of Tennessee’s wagon as they were flagged for 35 yards in penalties to turn a first and goal into a fourth and forever. McGrath bailed the Vols out with a 48-yard field goal to go up 13-7. Pitt went deep into the playbook when wide receiver Jared Wayne, who was a quarterback in high school in Canada, hit Lucas Krull for a 16-ayrd score to give Pitt the lead.

On the next UT drive, Milton was hit hard and fumbled at the 19 and Pitt went right to work. It appeared the Keystone State visitors were ready to punch another one into the end zone but the Tennessee defense held and forced a kick, one that Sam Scarton nailed from 38 yards. He added another one on the next Pitt possession, this time from 27 yards to stretch the lead to 20-13. The Vols got their second wind when Hooker rolled right and found Jimmy Calloway open for the catch and the Georgia sophomore tip-toed down the sideline for a 44-yard score. McGrath’s point after was good as Tennessee tied the score at 20-20 with 2:16 remaining in the half.

Pitt executed their two-minute offense to perfection as they drove the field and punched the ball in for a score with 19 ticks left when Vincent Davis scored from the two. The Panthers took a 27-20 advantage to the break. Pickett had 200 yards through the air in the first two quarters, 100 of which went to Mack.

A strange play highlighted the first part of the second half. Pitt kicker Ben Sauls tried a 56-yard field goal but Theo Jackson was standing under the goal post and took the miss back 100 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown but it was called back on an illegal block. Tennessee didn’t do anything with the ensuing drive and Pitt turned their next possession into points as Pickett snuck in from the one yard line to put the Panthers up 34-20. Tennessee answered by going to the tight ends which included Jacob Warren who caught an eight-yard throw from Hooker to make it 34-27. The Panthers pushed the lead back to two scores early in the fourth quarter as Pickett found Jordan Addison for a five-yard touchdown.

Tennessee continued to find success throwing to the tight end as Warren amassed 40 yards on two catches to get to the Pitt two yard line. Jaylen Wright scored from three inches away from the goal line and the Vols continued to fight and claw as they shrank the Panther lead to 41-34.

A golden opportunity fell by the wayside as the Vols were stopped on a fourth-and-one play at the Pitt three yard line with just under seven minutes remaining. Tennessee had one last chance as the Panthers shanked a punt late in the fourth but Hooker threw an interception and Pitt was able to run out the clock.

The Volunteers will host Tennessee Tech next Saturday at noon.