For the first time since 2015, Tennessee will play in a top-25 non-conference matchup on Saturday as they travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to take on Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers.
Pitt, maintaining their 17 ranking in this week’s AP Poll following a week one thriller of a win over West Virginia, is set to present all new challenges to Tennessee this weekend. Naturally, Pitt’s defense is a significantly better unit than Ball State’s, but it’s how they get after opposing offenses that makes them a threatening but exposable group. As for the Vols’ defense, the pass rush and defensive backs could be the main keys to victory for the Vols.
Tennessee Offensive Keys:
Pass protection vs. Pitt pressure
There are three key factors to Tennessee’s offensive success in this game: protecting Hendon Hooker, effectively running the ball, and receivers winning on the outside. We’ll get to the second and third points in a bit because the first and absolutely most imperative point of victory is protecting Hooker.
A season ago, per PFF, Pitt garnered 20 total pressures and six sacks against the Vols, including a pair of strip sacks that, luckily for Tennessee, only led to three points. Habakkuk Baldonado and Calijah Kancey totaled three of those sacks, and they are back this year along with fifth year senior, John Morgan III, who played a great game against West Virginia, tallying six total pressures and a sack.
The Vols offensive line graded out incredibly well in pass-pro against Ball State, but Ball State never brought pressure. In fact, Hooker was pressured just once in his 27 drop backs largely because Ball State blitzed just once the entire time Hooker was in. We just don’t really know what this o-line is made of just yet.
Spraggins, Mays, and Carter will have their hands full inside against Pitt’s predominantly four-man front and interior blitzes, which leaves Florida transfer Gerald Mincey and Darnell Wright on islands outside. Pitt doesn’t stunt much up front, everything is pretty straight forward, and they blitz on every third down. The Vols will have to make a point of dedicating a sixth blocker routinely, making tight end Princeton Fant’s impact on this game a lot more vital than expected because WVU’s tight ends are still calling John Morgan their daddy.
Key #2: Vols must effectively run the ball
We just harped on Pitt’s aggressive pass rush and how it could pose problems for Tennessee, so you may be wondering: How did they give up 31 points to West Virginia? Simple. Pitt couldn’t stop the run all game long. Giving up 190 yards at 5.8 yards a pop, WVU racked up big run plays that fueled easy scoring opportunities and almost rendered their ineffective passing attack negligible.
Pitt loads the box, especially on short yardage situations, but their linebackers are not great at fitting the run. As you see here, they get sucked in very easily, and their safeties are slow to the point of attack, leaving tons of room for Tony Mathis to operate. CJ Donaldson rushed for 125 yards on his own on just seven carries.
If there was one area of Tennessee’s offense that left a lot to be desired after week one, it was uncharacteristically their rushing attack. That being said, they still rushed for 218 yards as a team. It should always be a point of strength for an offense that operates in a way that often finds the opposing defense on their heels.
The Vols’ ground success under Heupel has been steady and constant. They nearly ran for 3,000 yards as a team a season ago. Tennessee’s trenches against Pitt’s four man front have to assert themselves and be dominant. This is a huge game for Javontez Spraggins and especially Jerome Carvin. Carvin’s run blocking left a lot to be desired against Ball State, grading out at 47.9 per PFF, and Calijah Kancey is much more athletic and quick to the spot than anyone that Ball State has. Saying it’s a huge game for him is an understatement.
Key #3: Hyatt and McCoy have to win on the outside
Gone are Velus Jones Jr. and JaVonta Payton, and though Cedric Tillman is still there, the Vols were missing one big part of what made their offense so historically good a year ago against Ball State: explosive big plays.
Hooker was great beyond the sticks in week one, completing 4-of-5 passes for 88 yards and a TD. However, beyond 20 yards, things between Hooker and his inexperienced receivers (Tillman excluded) didn’t fully click yet. Look for that to change this week.
Pitt presses a lot, and while the 6-3, 220 pound McCoy and Tillman are great off the break and can dominate the middle of the field, it’s the speedster Hyatt who could push Pitt’s defense down the field the best so long as he can create separation. The time for a Jalin Hyatt breakout game is now.
Tennessee Defensive Keys:
Vols front seven have to get home while secondary keeps everything in front of them
As we saw against Ball State, Tennessee likes to go with a fair mix of man coverage and single high while mixing blitzes in throughout. The pressure WVU got on Kedon Slovis showed that Pitt has holes along its offensive line, and they’re exploitable for the Vols, too.
Though the Vols didn’t sack Ball State’s John Paddock at all a week ago, they were able to get 13 pressures on him, and they were fairly effective when blitzing, creating a pair of interceptions when doing so.
Pitt’s offense will look quite a bit different than they did a season ago. Gone is Mark Whipple’s spread attack and in is Frank Cignetti Jr. and a much more pro-style attack. Considering what we saw from Kenny Pickett the past few years, it was quite jarring seeing Pitt line up in the “I” formation often, occasionally with an extra lineman.
Byron Young, Omari Thomas and co. have to generate pressure and, much like a year ago, contain the run and not let it become a weapon. Linebacker play is also a massive key in fitting runs properly against bigger formations.
The secondary showed a lot more aggressiveness at the point of attack last week versus what we saw a season ago, and with better depth, things are looking more promising with that unit, a place that was a major concern heading into the year. They’ll have their work cut out for them this week. Kedon Slovis, while a step down from Kenny Pickett, can still sling it, but with Jordan Addison’s departure, Pitt has a very inexperienced receiving corps outside of Jared Wayne.
Should Tennessee’s bend but don’t break secondary be able to keep the ball in front of them and possibly come up with a timely turnover — Slovis has proven to be turnover prone throughout his time in college, totaling 26 interceptions over his three full seasons — the Vols have a great chance to go into Pittsburgh and steal a game on the road.
As things currently sit, the Vols are the betting favorite at -6.5 and the over/under sits at 64.5. Clearly Vegas is anticipating a high scoring affair, a fair assumption given a season ago. This is the first of many swing games for Tennessee this season, and a win here not only splits the home and home with Pitt, but it also sets sail what could be an incredibly promising season for Josh Heupel’s squad.