Hooker, defense lead No. 24 Tennessee past No. 17 Pitt in OT

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Tennessee coach Josh Heupel isn’t sure his team would have found a way a year ago to win a game where it fumbled twice and allowed a blocked punt. All in the second half. On the road. Against a program coming off a Power Five conference title.

It’s not last season. The 24th-ranked Volunteers may be maturing in front of their coach’s eyes. The latest proof came in a draining 34-27 overtime victory over No. 17 Pitt on Saturday, a four-hour physical and emotional marathon that ended with Tennessee spilling onto the field in a mixture of joy and relief.

“There’s a certain level of maturity that we certainly didn’t have last year at times,” said Heupel, who is in his second season of trying to restore the Volunteers to relevancy in the SEC. “Our kids are willing to continue to compete. They handled the flows, the ups and downs of the game the right way.”

There were plenty of each to go around. The Volunteers (2-0) allowed a game-tying touchdown pass from Pitt backup quarterback Nick Patti with 2:23 to go but regrouped to win it on a 28-yard lob from Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman on Tennessee’s first possession of the extra period.

The Volunteers’ defense, which had been relentless over the final three-plus quarters following a slow start, did the rest. It used a third-down sack and the one last of a seemingly unending streak of quarterback pressures to force Patti to throw incomplete on fourth down to end it.

“The second, third and fourth quarter, that’s as good a performance as I’ve been around in a long time,” Heupel said of a defense that struggled against quality competition in 2021. “They got put in a lot of bad positions. … I thought the overall effort from them was special.”

The defense needed to be on a night when the offense, which has become the program’s calling card, spent much of the second half running in place.

While Hooker finished with 325 yards passing and two touchdowns and Tillman caught nine passes for 162 yards, Tennessee couldn’t put the Panthers away even with Pitt severely limited.

The Panthers (1-1) lost starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to an undisclosed injury at the end of the first half and Patti spent the final quarter-plus effectively on one leg after twisting his knee while getting sacked.

The Volunteers allowed a blocked punt, saw a fumble cut short a drive and gave Pitt life late when Tre Flowers muffed a punt with 7:28 to go. The Panthers slowly moved the ball deep into Tennessee territory before a backpedaling Patti found Jared Wayne for a 4-yard score on fourth-and-goal to tie it at 27 with 2:23 to play.

Pitt finally ran out of chances in overtime. Patti — who finished 9 of 20 for 79 yards — drove the Panthers inside the 10 but Tennessee’s fourth sack forced Patti into a “heave and pray” and when his final pass fell to the turf, the Volunteers had found a way to win the type of game they’d grown accustomed to losing in recent years.

“(The defense) played amazing, you know, especially in the second half,” Tillman said. “You know, we’re not in his game if they don’t make the plays that they did.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The Panthers missed a pair of field goals and saw a red-zone possession in the first quarter end with an interception instead.

“I told our guys, it’s a game of inches, and there were inches all over the place that we needed to get,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi declined to give specifics on the nature of Slovis’ injury, saying only that he was hurt while getting sacked late in the first half that turned into a fumble — allowing Tennessee to take a 24-17 lead into the break.

Slovis, who finished 14 of 24 for 195 yards with a touchdown and a pick, felt “good” after the game according to Narduzzi.

Israel Abanikanda ran for 154 yards and a touchdown for Pitt.

THE TAKEAWAY

Tennessee: The Volunteers are eyeing a big step forward this fall. Whether they take it will rely heavily on a defense that struggled against quality opponents in 2021. So far, so good.

Pitt: The offense entered the season with plenty of question marks following Kenny Pickett’s graduation. The offensive line was not supposed to be one of them. There were times Saturday when there were multiple white jerseys in the Panther backfield almost immediately after the snap.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Panthers could potentially fall out of the poll for the first time since Halloween after letting an early 11-point lead get away. The Volunteers should vault into the Top 20 for the first time since October 2016 when the poll is released Sunday.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: Hosts Akron next Saturday, with a visit from Florida looming on Sept. 24.

Pitt: Travels to Western Michigan next Saturday hoping to avenge a stunning home loss to the Broncos last fall.

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