No. 17 Pitt embraces underdog status versus No. 24 Tennessee

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pat Narduzzi does his best to block out the noise. Still, some of it filters through to the longtime Pittsburgh head coach.

So yes, he’s aware the 17th-ranked Panthers (1-0) are underdogs on Saturday when 24th-ranked Tennessee (1-0) becomes the first Southeastern Conference school to visit Pittsburgh. Ever.

Even though Pitt is coming off its first ACC title. Even though the Panthers beat the Volunteers in Knoxville last fall. Even though Pitt rallied past West Virginia in its season opener on Sept. 1 while Tennessee beat overmatched Ball State to crash the rankings.

Narduzzi is fine with being an underdog. It’s a role he says he prefers, though the tone of his voice might indicate otherwise.

“You’ve heard all summer about the SEC, and there’s only really two Power Five conferences in the country, the SEC and the Big Ten,” Narduzzi said. “So we’re in the peewee league, and we’re going to line up and see if we can play.”

The Panthers looked like they could play while finding a way to slip past the Mountaineers, a performance Narduzzi described as average. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it should — in theory — keep his players in check.

“I think handling success this week, when you kind of played (poorly) … I think it makes it a little bit easier,” he said. “How about that? If they can get excited about that, then good for them (but) you didn’t see me dancing around in the locker room, okay, and there will be no dancing.”

Tennessee began 2022 where it left off in 2021: by piling up points aplenty with sixth-year quarterback Hendon Hooker running coach Josh Heupel’s high-tempo offense. The Volunteers have now topped 45 points in four straight games — tying a record set in 1993 — and Hooker has thrown a touchdown pass in every game he’s appeared in since taking over for Joe Milton in the middle of last year’s loss to Pitt.

“Hendon is a completely different guy,” Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said. “His confidence, his fundamentals, his development since that point, he’s a completely different quarterback.”

Albeit a familiar one to the Panthers. This will be Hooker’s fourth appearance against Pitt, including two he made while at Virginia Tech.

Hooker transferred from the Hokies to the Volunteers looking for a fresh start. Chalking up a big nonconference road win for a program that has more losing seasons (seven) than winning ones (six) since 2008 would certainly be welcome.

“This is a big game for us, obviously,” said Heupel. “(It’s) the first road test for us against a really good football team.”

FINISH WHAT THEY START

The Volunteers have outscored teams 207-51 in the first quarter under Heupel and have scored at least one touchdown in the first quarter in all 14 games since he took over but are just 8—6. Tennessee outscored Ball State 17-0 to open this season. And they led Pittsburgh 10-0 last year in Neyland Stadium.

ON THE RUN

Pitt’s typically dominant run defense was punched in the mouth against West Virginia, giving up 190 yards on the ground, or well over double the 88 yards per game the Panthers allowed in 2021.

Narduzzi attributed the sloppy play to poor coaching, alignment issues and having a handful of Panthers getting their first extended playing time.

“I talked to a couple (of) guys who were like, ‘Coach, it’s a lot different than practice.’ Yeah, it is, but you’ve got to make it the same,” Narduzzi said.

EXPERIENCED PROTECTION

Tennessee has four of five starters back on the offensive line. Cooper Mays is back anchoring the line at center after starting 11 games last season, though he missed the loss to Pitt with an injury. Left guard Jerome Carvin has started 31 games, while right guard Javontez Spraggins has 14 starts to his credit. Right tackle Darnell Wright has 30, including 23 consecutive starts. Carvin has allowed one sack in his past here seasons combined.

SLOVIS AND STEADY

USC transfer Kedon Slovis overcame some early jitters to throw for 308 yards against the Mountaineers in his Pitt debut. Slovis absorbed five sacks, which Narduzzi chalked up to a combination of Slovis holding the ball too long and receivers not running the correct routes.

Slovis was most effective running out of the shotgun, a formation Pitt used in 18 of its final 20 snaps, including every one on a game-tying 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.

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