Surprise, surprise: Tennessee football offense fizzles, defense sizzles vs Pitt in OT win | Adams
You could say Tennessee football won left-handed against Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium. It won with defense.
And it needed an overtime to do it, 34-27.
Who would have thought it?
Coach Josh Heupel’s Vols are supposed to zoom past mediocre opponents with their fast-paced, spread offense. And despite Pittsburgh's No. 14 national ranking, I wouldn’t categorize it as anything other than mediocre.
The Vols also are supposed to strike quickly. But even when they fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, you could have envisioned them zooming ahead.
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They did just that in taking a 24-17 lead by halftime. If you imagined a blowout unfolding, forgive yourself.
The score and the change in momentum suggested a runaway Tennessee victory. That possibility seemed more likely when Pittsburgh opened the third quarter with backup quarterback Nik Patti in charge.
Tennessee’s pass rush forced the change. It took a toll on quarterback Kedon Slovis, who often was hit even when he completed passes. It’s a wonder he hadn’t undergone concussion protocol by the end of the first half.
With Slovis injured, the Pittsburgh offense struggled terribly. But so did Tennessee’s.
Its last two scores in regulation came on Chase McGrath field goals – one near the end of the first half and a 50-yarder early in the fourth quarter. The Vols dropped what should have been a touchdown pass and fumbled the ball over to the Panthers in the third quarter.
But more significantly, they often failed to capitalize on what should have been a mismatch between its bigger receivers and Pittsburgh’s smaller defensive backs, whom coach Pat Narduzzi repeatedly placed in harm’s way with one-on-one coverage.
The Vols capitalized on that in the first half. You might have expected to them to capitalize more after halftime. But Pittsburgh’s defense didn’t wear down in the face of UT’s up-tempo offense.
Give Pittsburgh credit for that.
But give Tennessee’s defense credit, too. If not for that defense, the Vols might have been down three scores early.
After building a 10-0 lead, Pittsburgh was pressing for another score when Tennessee safety Trevon Flowers intercepted a Slovis pass in the end zone. The momentum shifted on that play.
And it shifted again with another defensive play near the end of the first half.
Tyler Baron knocked the ball loose from Slovis and UT recovered to set up a 37-yard McGrath field goal. The play was more significant than first realized. Slovis was done for the day, and so was Pittsburgh’s passing game.
Advantage, Tennessee, right?
It should have been. But Pittsburgh’s defense unexpectedly held its ground for most of the second half.
The Panthers needed more than defense, though. They needed an offense that could take advantage of UT’s mishaps – one of which came on a Pittsburgh punt.
After Flowers fumbled a punt inside the Vols’ 40-yard line, the Panthers had another opportunity. They also had another injured quarterback. Patti was limping noticeably after being hit by Baron but completed a pass on the next play that carried inside UT’s 10-yard line.
Finally, Tennessee’s defense gave way. Patti completed a 4-yard touchdown pass on fourth down as the Panthers tied the game with 2:23 to play.
UT’s offense kicked in gear in the overtime period, just as you might have thought it would to start the second half. Tillman outmaneuvered a smaller defensive back in the end zone, and Hooker was on target with a 28-yard touchdown pass.
But Tennessee didn’t clinch the victory until a blitzing Flowers sacked Patti for a 12-yard loss on third down at the Tennessee 20-yard line. After a fourth-down pass fell incomplete, UT’s offensive-minded coach had no doubt about the outcome was decided.
“How about that effort from our defense?” Heupel said after the game.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at: twitter.com/johnadamskns.