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RECAP: Tennessee falls to Pittsburgh, 41-34

Tough loss.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee played this game close until the end, but Pittsburgh got the win 41-34.

The game started off so promising. Tennessee forced a three-and-out on Pittsburgh’s first drive and then blocked Pitt’s punt. Jabari Smith scored the game’s first TD on a two-yard run.

The teams exchanged a few three-and-outs, Tennessee starter Joe Milton peppered in numerous overthrows with a few on easy, woulda-been touchdowns. Here’s one that WASN’T Milton’s fault:

That’s just a perfectly-placed ball that Jalin Hyatt can’t hang on to. Even worse, Hyatt left the game after this play and didn’t return. The Vols took a 10-0 lead on a 37-yard Chase McGrath FG with about four minutes left in the first quarter.

Unfortunately for the Vols, every football game has a second quarter. Last week’s second quarter was bad, and this week’s was maybe worse. The literal first play of the second quarter was a Pittsburgh TD, and Tennessee then lost Milton for the rest of the game due to injury.

Hendon Hooker took over and started a bit shaky. The Vols went three-and-out on Hooker’s first drive but then responded with a 44-yard TD pass on a screen play to Jimmy Calloway.

The Panthers went on to score three more TDs in the game’s next 15 minutes. Tennessee mustered just three more points and went into halftime trailing 27-20. I mentioned Hyatt and Milton, but the Vols also lost their best pass rusher Tyler Baron at some point in the first half, too, though he eventually returned. So UT went into half down a score and also down its starting QB, best WR and best defensive lineman. Starting RB Jabari Small was also hurt at some point, but the second quarter was SO LONG that I’m not sure if Small went out before halftime or after.

The scoring slowed in the third, just 14 points or one TD for each team, but Tennessee found a spark with Hooker in the backfield. He went 4-4 on the Vols’ last drive in the third quarter, rushed for 23 yards and capped off the drive with an eight-yard jump-pass touchdown to TE Jacob Warren. Sorry in advance for the quality. My software does this AT LEAST once per game.

Pittsburgh scored a TD on its first drive of the fourth quarter and took a 41-27 lead. Hooker drove the Vols down the field on Tennessee’s next possession, rushing once for 19 yards and completing two of his three passes (both to Warren) before Jaylen Wright punched it in for a score, making it a 41-34 and a one possession game. The Vols’ defense forced a three-and-out, then Hooker once again drove the offense into scoring possession with his ability to throw and run. But Pittsburgh turned over the Vols on downs at its own three-yard line.

Yet again, the Tennessee defense came up strong, getting another three-and-out and giving the offense the ball in great field position with a chance to win the game. Hooker threw a pick on the second play of the drive and ended any chance for a UT comeback.

As much as this game was billed “Pittsburgh’s defense vs. Tennessee’s up-tempo offense,” it was Kenny Pickett and the Panther offense that stole the show. Pickett hit 24 of his 46 pass attempts and threw two TD passes over 285 yards. He had zero turnovers.

The Vols repeatedly hurt themselves — 13 penalties that cost them 134 yards, two fumbles that Pitt recovered, six sacks given up by the offensive line and finally the third turnover of the game in Hooker’s interception.

On the bright side, Hooker played a good game overall. He went 15-21 for 189 yards and two TDs.

Tennessee has Tennessee Tech up next, followed by a trip to Florida.