KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee couldn’t have asked for a better start Saturday against Pitt. The defense forced a three and out, Christian Charles blocked a punt, and Jabari Small’s two-yard touchdown run gave the Vols a 7-0 lead just five plays into the game.
It set the stage for what could have been a huge shot in the arm for the program in just Josh Heupel’s second game as head coach. But the Vols' inability to finish drives, in the first half when they had a chance to build on that lead or in the fourth quarter, cost them in a frustrating 41-34 defeat.
The defense forced Pitt into three and outs on its first three possessions, but the offense couldn’t capitalize. Milton was erratic, airmailing five different deep balls to open receivers in the first half. A sixth was dropped in the end zone by Jalen Hyatt, though it would’ve been nullified by a holding penalty had it been complete.
Instead of being up 17 or 21 points, the lead was just 10-0. Milton again showed the flashes with his arm and legs that made him such an attractive transfer from Michigan. His 54-yard second-quarter run set up a first and goal, only for consecutive penalties to force Tennessee to settle for a long field goal. But he’s got to make the throws that are there when his receivers get the type of separation they did early and often against the Panthers’ man-to-man defense, and he has to protect the football. He fumbled for the second straight week, this time suffering an injury that knocked him from the game.
Hendon Hooker, the transfer from Virginia Tech, came off the bench to complete 15 of 21 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 48 to spark the offense.
But Hooker and the Vols were playing catch up from the second quarter once the Pitt offense got going behind its star QB. Kenny Pickett, who was the best player on the field, threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns as the Panthers built a pair of 14-point second-half leads.
Tennessee did not quit despite frustrations and a growing injury list. Milton was joined on the sideline by Small, Hyatt, who was injured on his drop in the end zone, and by center Cooper Mays and backup running back Tiyon Evans who did not dress for the game.
Jaylen Wright’s fourth-quarter touchdown run pulled the Vols back within seven and the defense got the stop it needed, but Tennessee could not tie the game despite cracking the red zone. Hooker appeared to pick up a first down at the Pitt 3, but the officials ruled him just short. Wright was then stuffed on the fourth down play to keep the score 41-34.
After the defense forced another three and out, Tennessee had one last chance. But Hooker’s pass down the middle of the field was intercepted by Brandon Hill and the Panthers were able to run out the clock.
Instead of a momentum-building win, Heupel now has to regroup his team, reminding them after the game that this loss does not define their season. But there’s serious work to be done, because after next week’s game against Tennessee Tech there are few, if any, sure wins on the schedule as SEC play ramps up.
Heupel also now has a decision to make at quarterback. Will he stick with Milton, if healthy, despite the sometimes errant throws? Or will he see if Hooker can continue to provide a spark? The coach said that every position will be evaluated in the coming week.
Tennessee has the players to compete most weeks, but it has very little margin for error. The mountain of mistakes Saturday cost the Vols a winnable game.
Heupel believes his team can and will play better. It’s going to need to.