Tennessee football survives Pittsburgh in overtime on Cedric Tillman touchdown

Adam Sparks
Knoxville News Sentinel

PITTSBURGH – Tennessee football held on for a 34-27 overtime win over No. 14 Pittsburgh on Saturday in arguably the best win of coach Josh Heupel’s brief tenure.

The Vols (2-0) recovered from a slow start and lackluster fourth quarter to capture the road victory.

Cedric Tillman caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker in overtime.  Pitt failed on its final possession, as UT safety Trevon Flowers made a sack for a 12-yard loss on third down.

UT squandered a chance to win in regulation.

Pitt tied the game at 27 with 2:23 remaining on Nick Patti's TD pass to Jared Wayne on fourth-and-goal. Flowers muffed a punt return to set up the Panthers' scoring opportunity.

The Vols' ensuing drive stalled. They punted and headed into overtime.

Pitt (1-1), the defending ACC champion, was ranked No. 14 in the USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll and No. 17 in AP Top 25. Last season, the Vols beat Kentucky, ranked No. 18 in both polls at the time, in Heupel’s debut season.

The last time the Vols beat a higher ranked road opponent was a win over No. 12 Kentucky in Jeremy Pruitt’s 2018 debut season.

Here are five observations from UT’s big road win at Acrisure Stadium.

Vols lean on Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman

Hooker and Tillman continued to be UT’s best offensive weapons.

Hooker tossed a TD pass for a 14th consecutive game, the second-longest streak in school history. Heath Shuler owns the record at 18 straight games from 1992-93. Hooker finished 27-of-42 passing for 325 yards and two TDs.

Tillman surpassed 100 yards receiving in the first half, including a 61-yarder from Hooker. It was Tillman’s sixth 100-yard receiving game of his career, including five in the past six games. He finished with nine receptions for 162 yards and one TD.

Pitt quarterback knocked out of game by Vols

After not recording a sack in a Week 1 win over Ball State, UT brought the heat.

The Vols blitzed early and often, knocking Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis out of the game just before halftime with an undisclosed injury.

With 14 seconds remaining in the first half, Tyler Baron sacked Slovis and forced him to fumble, which Omari Thomas recovered. It set up Chase McGrath’s 37-yard field goal to extend UT’s lead to 24-17.

Slovis stood tall in the pocket and burned the Vols a few times, but he paid for it. They hurried him nine times, including three hard hits by linebacker Aaron Beasley.

And nickel back Wesley Walker, a Georgia Tech transfer, sacked Slovis on a fourth-and-3 play from UT’s 27-yard line to stop a scoring opportunity.

Patti was less effective under duress, but did throw the game-tying TD pass to force overtime. 

Bru McCoy hits paydirt for first time

Perhaps the “Bruuuu!” chants weren’t as loud in a road stadium, but Bru McCoy still made his presence known. The Southern Cal transfer hauled in a 32-yard TD pass in the second quarter for his first score with the Vols.

It was a successful second chance at a TD toss for Hooker, who overthrew Tillman on a wide-open deep pass three plays earlier. 

Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy (15) catches a pass for a touchdown during the first half of a game between the Tennessee Volunteers and Pittsburgh Panthers in Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022.

Pitt challenged the official ruling of a TD because McCoy had stepped out of bounds before catching the pass. But the play was confirmed because a Pitt defender forced McCoy out of bounds, and he re-established his footing in bounds before making the reception. 

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi was still complaining about the call during an interview with an ABC sideline reporter when his team went to the locker room at halftime.

Jabari Small takes short route to end zone

It’s hard to call any touchdown a gimme in a college football game. But UT running back Jabari Small didn’t have to do much to keep his scoring streak alive.

Twice, UT initially appeared to score a touchdown, only to be ruled down inside the 1-yard line. Jacob Warren’s 24-yard catch was stopped just shy of the goal line. And Tillman’s 61-yard reception put the Vols about a foot from paydirt.

Small followed with rushing TDs on the next play. He has scored at least one TD in five consecutive games and multiple TDs in three of the past five games.

So much for great starts

UT’s offense had an uncharacteristically bad start, trailing at the end of the first quarter for only the third time in 15 games under Heupel. It took a second-quarter surge for the Vols to bounce back.

UT went three-and-out on its first two possessions, using less than two minutes of game clock. It was smothered by Pitt’s pressure, and Hooker overthrew Jalin Hyatt on a pass that could’ve gone for a big play or even a touchdown.

Pitt capitalized with back-to-back scores, including a 76-yard run by Israel Abanikanda, for a 10-0 lead before UT recovered.

Before this lackluster start, the Vols had scored a TD on their first possession in nine of 14 games under Heupel. Pitt joined Ole Miss and Florida as the only teams to lead a Heupel-coached UT team at the end of the first quarter.

But UT outscored Pitt 24-7 in the remainder of the first half to lead 24-17.

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.