On Rocky Top, an entertaining affair played out between the Pitt Panthers and Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday that was more offensive than most people predicted. In the end, the Panthers prevailed in a one-score final, 41-34.
The game started promisingly for the Vols as true freshman Christian Charles blocked Pitt’s punt resulting in a recovery inside the Pitt five-yard line. Jabari Small punched it in for a two-yard touchdown on UT’s first offensive play. The teams traded punts on the next three drives before the Vols put up a field goal with 4:44 left in the first quarter. 10-0 Vols.
On the ensuing drive, the Pitt offensive line found their bearings and Kenny Pickett marched the Panthers on a 92-yard drive for a TD that bled into the second quarter. The second quarter is where this game really picked up. The scoring progressed as follows from 10-7 Vols: 13-7 Vols, 14-13 Panthers, 17-13 Panthers, 20-13 Panthers, 20-20, and the first half ended with Pitt up 27-20. The Panthers managed to put up 27 points just in the second quarter behind some incredibly poised play by Kenny Pickett.
On the other side, Joe Milton had sort of a shaky start under center for Tennessee. There were multiple instances where he overthrew wide-open receivers. Unfortunately, Milton was forced to leave the game with a lower-body injury before he could really settle in with 9:13 left in the half. Hendon Hooker came out of the bullpen and played decently for the remainder of the game.
To open the second half, Tennessee fumbled and this served as a microcosm of the entire day. Pitt just played a cleaner game and you could tell they were the more veteran-laden roster. The moment wasn’t too big for them, even in Neyland. The Panthers went up 34-20 with 4:49 left in the third and it felt like Pitt was in full control at this point. Tennessee put up a solid fight but was chasing for the rest of the half until a Hendon Hooker interception put the final nail in the orange coffin with 4:52 left in the game. Pitt managed to bleed the clock out on their final drive.
As stated before, Pitt’s cleanliness led them to victory in this one. Kenny Pickett finished 24/36 passing with 285 yards and two TDs. In the first half, the Panthers also managed to 8 for 9 in third-down conversions. Pitt was also +3 in the turnover margin for the day. Hendon Hooker had a solid day going 15/21 for 188 yards and two TDs in just 2.5 quarters of play but had an interception. Even if Milton is healthy next week, there will surely be calls for Hooker to start.
All in all, Tennessee showed some good signs today. The defense was explosive on a lot of plays, especially in the first half, and finished with 10 tackles for loss on the day. They only managed two sacks, however, while five of Pitt’s nine TFLs were sacks.
The Vols will fine-tune things next week at home against Tennessee Tech before traveling to The Swamp and Columbia, MO for a challenging start to conference play.