The Panthers (2-0, 0-0 ACC) took down the Tennessee Volunteers (1-1, 0-0 SEC) 41-34 on Saturday as Kenny Pickett threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
After a slow start last week against UMass, Pitt hoped to right the ship and get ahead early this week against the Volunteers. But the start for the Panthers was not what they were looking for. Pickett wasn’t able to get the offense going early, registering just 12 yards of offense in the Panthers’ first three drives.
From the get-go, the Panthers played on their heels. Pickett found sophomore receiver Jordan Addison on a screen pass for a loss of yardage on the first play of the game, which the offense followed up with a couple of plays for little to no gain. When redshirt senior punter Kirk Christodoulou marched out to send the ball deep, the Volunteers busted through the line and blocked the punt.
The Volunteers took over at the two-yard line and only needed one play to score their first touchdown of the day. In 90 seconds, the Panthers gave away the momentum to the packed crowd at Neyland Stadium.
The crowd noise — something the majority of this roster had never experienced — clearly affected the offense’s ability to operate. Some of the Panthers had trouble setting up, the offense couldn’t hear the snap count and the Volunteer defense fed off of the crowd’s energy. The Volunteers jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead.
But much like last week, once the offense found its rhythm, the Panthers didn’t take their foot off of the gas.
After three straight three-and-outs, Pickett marched onto the field and picked apart the Volunteer defense. Pickett completed five of five passes for 65 yards on the drive. He capped off the drive by finding senior receiver Melquise Stovall in the endzone for an 11-yard touchdown. Pitt had some life.
Pickett picked up right where he left off on the next drive, leading the offense down the field for another score. The quarterback found some of his favorite targets — sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda along with receivers redshirt senior Taysir Mack and Addison — to get the Panthers into the red zone. But offensive play-caller Mark Whipple decided to spread the wealth once the Panthers made their way into the red zone.
Pickett lateraled the ball to Jaylon Barden, and the wide receiver cocked his arm back — floating the ball to Krull for a Panther touchdown.
After a slow start, the Panther offense was near perfect to close out the first half, embarking on five straight scoring drives — three of which being touchdowns. Pickett closed the half completing 18 of 23 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown.
While the Panther offense was able to get it done, the Tennessee defense was its own worst enemy, committing a couple of untimely penalties in their own territory. The penalties allowed the Panthers to move further into the red zone and opened the door for Pickett to take advantage.
The Vols may have put up 34 points but the Panther defense managed to have three takeaways. The first of which being a Keyshon Camp strip-sack — a sack that injured Tennessee redshirt junior quarterback Joe Milton.
Enter Virginia Tech transfer redshirt senior Hendon Hooker.
The Volunteers refused to go away. Hooker stepped in for an injured Milton and took advantage of several Panther defense miscues. Creative playcalling from Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel forced the Panthers to continue taking chances on the offensive side of the ball.
Hooker went 15-21 through the air for 189 yards, but his most memorable play came on a 23-yard run. The Panthers backed up the Volunteers on third down, with a 14 point lead. The Panther defense made their way into the backfield, and it seemed fourth down was inevitable. But Hooker left the pocket and gashed the defense for a first down to keep the drive alive — a drive the Volunteers would eventually score on. Hooker would finish the game with 48 yards on the ground.
The Volunteers outpaced the Panthers in a key category — kickoff return yards. Tennessee averaged 31 yards to the Panthers 12 each time they decided to return the kickoff. Tennessee consistently started their drives well past the 30-yard line.
The Panther defense may not have been able to keep Hooker and the Volunteers from moving the ball up the field for the vast majority of the game, but they made the plays when it mattered.
Pickett and the offense began to stall in the fourth quarter, with a couple of three and outs. Down by seven, the Volunteers found themselves inside the Panthers’ 10-yard line with a fourth-and-one, and Heupel opted to go for it. They put the ball on the ground, but redshirt senior linebacker John Petrishen flew into the backfield and stuffed the run before it could get going to force a turnover on downs.
Pitt took over on offense, still up by only one possession, but the Volunteers forced another Panther punt. On the second play of the drive, redshirt sophomore safety Brandon Hill lurked in the middle of the field and read Hooker’s eyes, picking him off to all but secure a Panther victory.
The Panthers will wrap up their out-of-conference schedule over the course of the next two weeks before starting ACC play in October. Pitt’s next game will be at home against Western Michigan, and will kick off next Saturday at noon. It will air on regional sports networks.
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