Next comes the last lull before the storm.
Tennessee has purchased what we think will be a routine victory for Saturday afternoon. Tennessee Tech is coming across I-40 to historic Neyland Stadium. The Golden Eagles will receive $500,000 and a few fringe benefits as enticement. Surely, they would not be so rude as to disrupt the plan.
OK, I hear you. This is essentially what Florida State said about Jacksonville State before that shocking upset.
Tech is supposed to help Tennessee recover from a lost game that could have – should have – been won. This is supposed to be a Vol tune-up scrimmage in preparation for an eye-opening trip to Gainesville to engage the dreaded Florida Gators. The Swamp is a treacherous place. As I recall, bad things frequently occur. There have been eight in a row.
Pittsburgh took some of the joy out of the Johnny Majors Classic. Actually, I thought Tennessee gave it up. The Vols started at a fever pitch, blocked a punt, settled for an early 10-0 lead, squandered momentum and yielded 27 points in the second quarter.
They somehow transformed second-and-goal at the Pitt 3 into third-and-37 out in the middle of Shields-Watkins Field.
Tennessee faced a pair of 14-point deficits in the second half, refused to give up and battled back courageously – but failed to capitalize.
With a chance to tie or go ahead by a point, they, for some reason, chose a shotgun alignment on fourth-and-inches. The key play never had a chance. It lost a yard at the Pitt 3 with 6:59 remaining. The visitors ran out the clock.
Other than all that and the fact that Tennessee had a hard time warding off Pitt pressure, this was an almost ordinary, exciting-enough game. Weather was beautiful. Old Vol Bobby Majors and former Pitt coach Jackie Sherrill were honorary captains. Attendance was announced as 82,203. Many in the upper decks appeared socially distanced.
The Vols’ first loss under Josh Heupel revealed plenty of room for improvement. They lacked discipline. They were penalized 13 times for 134 yards, eight flags flying for 95 in the first half. They were 3-0 losers in turnovers.
The coach said the team “needs to grow up fast” but immediately put a positive spin on that by stressing that the defeat won’t define the season. We’ll see.
Heupel said pre-game that the Vols were going to compete until the very last tick.
“I am proud of our football team because I think it did that. We weren’t perfect in how we competed, but we did compete.”
A more defined quarterback question has emerged. Joe Milton, again wild high, endured a sack, a fumble and an injury just before halftime and did not return. Hendon Hooker replaced him, threw two touchdown passes, made some interesting runs and demonstrated potential.
He also fumbled and telegraphed a pass and lost the decisive interception.
Compared to the Vols, Pitt is an established team. I thought Tennessee had more speed and better players at several positions. It played short-handed. Best running back Tiyon Evans, center Cooper Mays and defensive linemen Byron Young and LaTrell Bumphus were absent.
Running back Jabari Small, receiver Jalin Hyatt and Milton were lost during the game. Defensive end Tyler Baron played despite an injury.
No Evans, not enough Small and plenty of Panthers made a significant difference in the ground game. Quarterbacks were the most effective gainers. No. 3 RB Jaylen Wright carried 11 times for 15 net yards. That won’t get it.
Tennessee’s defense was good and bad. Freshman Christian Charles blocked the punt. Senior Theo Jackson again had 11 tackles, same as in the Bowling Green game.
Pitt fifth-year quarterback Kenny Pickett picked the Vol secondary apart in one hot streak, 11 consecutive completions. He found more receivers open in the middle than outside. Pickett finished 24-of-36 for 285 yards and two TDs.
Two strange plays, questionable calls:
Pitt missed a too-long field-goal attempt. Jackson caught the ball in the end zone and fled in the opposite direction. Jeremy Banks drew a yellow flag for what was called a block in the back. I wasn’t convinced.
Jackson kept running, for more than a hundred yards, for an apparent touchdown. Along the way, a Panther committed a foul. Officials correctly decided the penalties were off-setting. The entire play was nullified.
Instead of six points for the Vols, Pitt got the ball back for another fourth-down play. The Panthers, much wiser from the experience, punted and downed the ball inside the 3.
Later, with the game on the line, Hooker ran around right end and appeared to gain a first down at the Pitt 2. One official marked the spot short and tossed the ball to another official at the hash marks. After some deliberation, the flagmen elected to measure and found the play ended six little chain links short of where I thought.
This is not to imply the Atlantic Coast Conference officiating crew determined the outcome. The Vols found several other ways to fall short. Earlier assessment repeated: Tennessee did more to lose the game than Pitt did to win it.
Parting thought: Tennessee will look some better against Tennessee Tech.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.