Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh had it all — fireworks, turnovers, wild momentum swings — and ultimately disappointment.
Even though Tennessee appeared down and out late in the second quarter, the Volunteers kept the fight going, battling back to remain in contention. Hendon Hooker provided a spark, giving Tennessee some stability under center. Despite all of the injuries, penalties and missed opportunities, the Vols had a chance to tie the game late.
Those chances ended in a failed fourth down attempt after a very questionable spot, and a game-ending interception.
Tennessee actually showed quite a bit of promise, but they played like a young, undisciplined team. At the top of the long list of issues on Saturday were 13 penalties for 134 yards. That, paired with a 3-0 loss in the turnover column, is a tough combo to overcome.
“It’s not who we’ve been,” Heupel said after the game. “Taking our helmet off for a celebration early, changing the field position a little bit. First-and-7 on the goal line, not going in. Had a couple things transpire and kick the field goal. Had a bunch of things that we’ve got to be better at as competitors. Better composure. We talked about it before the game. Obviously we were not good in those moments.”
Tennessee missed an opportunity to put Pitt in a three touchdown hole (at least) in the first quarter. The Volunteers blocked a punt and punched in a touchdown to start the game, then forced multiple three and outs from the Pitt offense. Despite plenty of wide open opportunities down the field, Joe Milton misfired time and time again, only growing the Tennessee lead to 10-0.
The Panthers quickly came back and took control of the game, settling into an offensive groove and capitalizing on a Milton turnover.
Tennessee clawed back into the game despite it all, trailing 27-20 at halftime. They were playing from behind for the rest of the game though, and never caught the break they needed.
Even when they appeared to do so with a 100 yard kick-six return, it was called back due to offsetting penalties. Pittsburgh then punted, pinning Tennessee on their own 1-yard line instead.
“I don’t know what the right rule is or what it should be,” Heupel said. “I don’t know if we (blocked in the back) or not at the beginning of the return. I just saw the end of it, thought it was clean. Obviously had an opportunity to be a big play in the game, change the momentum. It didn’t. Then offensively with that drive we didn’t get going.”
Through all the mess, Tennessee drove down the field poised to tie the game up late in the fourth quarter. The officials then missed a pretty obvious spot on a key third down run by Hooker, and then Tennessee was stuffed at the goalline on a fourth down attempt.
“I did feel like he got to the yard to gain on his run,” Heupel admitted. “Was in communication with the side judge, making sure they were reviewing the spots. Those are tough situations. Don’t want to burn a timeout in those situations. But you’re trying to make sure those things are being reviewed.”
One final opportunity went down the drain with a Hendon Hooker interception, as the Virginia Tech transfer didn’t see the safety coming to undercut the route.
The final result? A very frustrating 41-34 loss. As badly as they executed, as many penalties as they racked up, all of the injuries — they still had a chance to win it late. That’s somewhat comforting in an odd way.
The offense worked schematically, Milton just didn’t execute. The defense stuffed the run and stood tall in certain spots, but overall failed to generate enough pass rush with Byron Young remaining sidelined. There’s definite upside to this team, but some personnel issues continue to hold them back for now.
Opportunities are there, can this team grow and develop enough to take advantage of them?