The Tennessee Vols went on the road against the defending ACC Champions Pittsburgh Panthers and survived a physical and game opponent in overtime. It was a sloppy win, filled with penalties and mistakes, but it’s nothing less than a good win for an upstart Vols team in their second season under head coach Josh Heupel. And that’s reflected in some generous grading in this week’s Tennessee Vols Game Grades Pittsburgh Edition.
The Vols were in an unusual position. They were playing as a favorite on the road against a highly ranked Power 5 opponent. Pitt punched the Vols in the mouth in the first quarter, but the Vols survived first contact and found a way to win a sloppy game against a quality opponent. The physicality test was the top priority for Tennessee entering the game, and the Vols answered the bell in that category. Especially the Vols defense.
Tennessee Vols Game Grades Pittsburgh Edition
Tennessee’s offense did just enough to win. More aptly, they made just one less mistake to lose the game. It was really the Hendon Hooker show today, as the sixth-year senior provided the calm leadership that steadied a wobbly Vols offense in the crucial moments.
Had Tennessee’s offense found its stride, this game would have been a three-score snoozer halfway through the fourth quarter. Not only was Pitt playing without their best defensive lineman for most of the game, the Vols only managed 77 total plays — six fewer than Pitt.
In past times, 34 points would be a great day for the Vols. But the expectations for this team are higher now. And so they should be.
Offensive Stat of the Game: 91 Rushing Yards.
Hooker was the lone standout on the offensive side of the ball on Saturday. While Hooker had a good stat line, 27-42 for 325 yards, two passing touchdowns, and 27 yards rushing, it was his leadership and calming presence that really made the difference. Pittsburgh was coming off an emotional win against West Virginia last week and an emotional charge with the loss of their Offensive Coordinator’s father earlier in the morning. The other Vols offensive units were up and down all day. Hooker was steady from the first snap to the game-winning touchdown pass.
Running Backs: C+
The running backs only accounted for 64 rushing yards a week after West Virginia was very successful on the ground against the Panthers. Jaylen Wright‘s fumble was one of the handfuls of critical mistakes by the Vols on Saturday. Wright and Jabari Small didn’t have a lot of room, but they did create any opportunities for themselves either. There were at least two breakdowns in pass protection for the backs as well. Wright and Small will have to step up against Florida in two weeks.
It was a strange day for the receivers. Cedric Tillman‘s stat line was great, with 9 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown. But Tillman, uncharacteristically, dropped four passes. Bru McCoy was the most physical of the receivers, earning two first downs with tough runs-after-catch. And Jalin Hyatt added some key catches in the second half. Princeton Fant had a nice catch, but a crucial penalty that stalled a Tennessee drive as well. These mistakes allowed Pitt to stay in the game far longer than they should have.
Offensive Line: B-
The offensive was decent in pass protection, as Hooker stayed upright most of the game. But the line wasn’t able to find any success against a depleted Pitt front four, especially in the first quarter when Pittsburgh came out with their typical physicality. They did respond in that category, and while their play was inconsistent and had trouble getting the running game going, they did play with a high level of physicality. There’s room for improvement, for sure, but there’s also plenty of reason to believe that they’ll be better in conference play.
Tennessee’s defense kept them in the game today. It’s been a long time since those words have been written about the Vols defense. But it was true today. They matched the physicality of the Pitt offense, which returned all five starters on the offensive line, and managed to knock Kedon Slovis out of the game and significantly hobble his replacement, Nick Patti.
Tennessee’s defense had 25 quarterback pressures and totaled four sacks and nice tackles-for-loss, for a total of +5 Sack/TFL differential over Pitt. They did give up three plays of 20+ yards or more on the day, which continues a concerning streak.
Defensive Stat of the Game: 13 Sacks+TFLs
Defensive Line: A
The defensive line had their best day in the Josh Heupel era. Pitt managed a handful of good rushes, but other than Isreal Abanikanda‘s 76-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter, the Panthers only managed 92 more yards throughout the game. Additionally, the defensive front put pressure on Slovis and Patti all game. Not only did they match Pitt’s physicality, but they also ratcheted it up several notches.
Slovis and Patti are going to have nightmares about Aaron Beasley for months. And Jeremy Banks was his normal crazed madman in run defense. The linebacking unit minimized their mistakes in pass coverage. Beasley finished the day with 14 tackles
As good as Banks is in run defense, he still makes a handful of mistakes in pass coverage every game – two critical pass coverage mistakes today. Fortunately, Pitt didn’t exploit that weakness too much today.
Defensive Backs: C+
Trevon Flowers had an athletic interception in the first quarter that prevented Pitt from taking a three-score lead early. But what looked like a decent performance from the secondary was masked, somewhat, but an excellent day from the defensive line and some missed opportunities on Pitt’s side. Still, the secondary’s tackling in open space was solid, which helped keep the Pitt running game in check. Kamal Hadden and Tamarian McDonald had solid days, again, for the Vols. Warren Burrell add four tackles but was on several of Pitt’s best passing plays. Flowers and Hadden had seven tackles a piece, with Flowers adding a sack and tackle for loss.
Special Teams: F
Other than Chase McGrath’s 51-yard field goal, the special teams were awful on Saturday. The Punt team had a protection misread that resulted in a blocked punt that gave Pitt the ball inside the Tennessee 30 in the third quarter. And Trevon Flowers muffed punt with 7:28 remaining in the fourth quarter allowed Pitt to score the game-tying touchdown a few minutes later. More egregious than the receiver’s mistakes, these mistakes kept Pitt in the game when Tennessee should have squeezed the life out of them. And it almost cost Tennessee the game.
Special team’s critical mistakes. Seven penalties for 70 yards. And a disjointed offensive effort. That’s on the coaches. But so is finding a way to win on the road against a Power 5 Conference Champion. And so was the resolve of handling being a road favorite. When things looked shaky for the Vols, they continued to play. In past years, Tennessee would have found a way to lose this game.
Saturday, they found a way to overcome their mistakes and win a big game.
Tennessee returns to Knoxville next Saturday to face Akron. Michigan State beat Akron 52-0 on Saturday. They will be prohibited underdogs when they enter Neyland Stadium next week. The Vols will have to focus on Akron and not look ahead to the Florida game in two weeks. It’ll be a good opportunity to work on tightening things up before the Vols enter SEC play in two weeks against a Top 25 Florida.