Much was expected of Pitt when the team traveled down to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday to take on Tennessee in the Johnny Majors Classic, and the Panthers proved equal to the task of taking down the Volunteers, as they prevailed 41-34.
Tennessee took the field prepared for the Pitt challenge, as Panthers offensive coordinator Mark Whipple drew up three short passes and was unable to gain any traction. However, disappointment gave way to disaster on fourth down of the first drive, when Volunteers defender Christian Charles blocked Kirk Christodoulou’s punt, giving the Vols the ball at the Pitt 2-yard line. Volunteers running back Jabari Small would run it in with relative ease on the next play to put Tennessee up 7-0.
Pitt would see a few more drives stall and give up a field goal before finding its offensive rhythm late in the first quarter on its fourth drive of the day. On that drive, Pitt signal-caller Kenny Pickett got the ball rolling with a seven-yard run and made some impressive passes to the likes of Lucas Krull and Taysir Mack. And after a defensive pass interference call put Pitt on the Tennessee 11, Pickett would find Pitt receiver Melquise Stovall in Neyland’s famous checkerboard end zone to make it 10-7.
The Volunteers would respond on the next drive by gouging an overaggressive Panthers defense for significant yardage on a Joe Milton run. However, the Vols squandered excellent field position after setting up a 1st-and-goal situation on Pitt’s 3-yard line with penalties for unnecessary roughness and offensive pass interference, bringing up 3rd and 37. But after a short gain, Tennessee kicker Chase McGrath would extend his team’s lead by putting a 48-yard kick through the uprights.
Pickett got Pitt’s next drive up and running by completing a 31-yard pass to Mack to put the Panthers in Tennessee territory. Another pass to Jordan Addison would go for a first down, and a suplex of Addison by Vols linebacker Jeremy Banks saw Banks draw a flag. That would set the Panthers up on the Tennessee 16, and on the next down, Pitt dialed up a trick play in which Pickett passed to Jared Wayne who passed to Lucas Krull for the go-ahead score, putting Pitt up 14-13.
Things would spiral out of control for Tennessee after that, as Pitt defensive lineman Keyshon Camp got to Milton and came up with a strip sack to give the Pitt offense the ball in the red zone. The Panthers would falter, but they came away with three points on a 38-yard Sam Scarton kick to make it 17-13, Pitt.
On the subsequent drive, Josh Heupel would hand the reins of the offense over to Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, as Milton suffered an injury and had to leave the game. Pitt blew up the next three plays to force a punt, after which Pickett and the Pitt offense once again drove down the field and threatened to score. However, after taking a third-down sack, they settled for a field goal.
The team’s two field goals would not be enough to keep Tennessee at arm’s length for long, as the Vols scored on a pass from Hooker to Jimmy Calloway on the next drive. That would knot the score at 20-20 and give Pitt the ball with about two minutes left in the half.
Pickett and the Panthers offense would take advantage of that opportunity, as the super senior completed two big passes to Mack. The first put Pitt on the edge of field-goal range, and the second moved Pitt into the red zone yet again while getting Mack up to 100 yards on four receptions early in the game. And in the red zone, Vincent Davis would punch it in to set the Panthers up with a 27-20 halftime lead.
In the second half, the Pitt defense would come up with a big play early, as Panthers defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado killed a drive by getting to Hooker, forcing a fumble and recovering the ball. But Pickett and the Pitt offense would not make much of the chance, as their subsequent drive stalled out.
At the end of that drive, Pat Narduzzi chose to trot out Ben Sauls for a 56-yard field goal. The kick fell short and was returned for a touchdown by Theo Jackson, but the score would not stand after an illegal block to the back was called on the Vols during the return. And in a rare stroke of good luck, Pitt then got the chance to punt and put the ball on Tennessee’s 3-yard line. That would set up a drive by Tennessee that never got going.
The Panthers would pounce on the opportunity provided to them by the Volunteers’ struggles, as Pickett led the team down the field for another score. Twice during the drive Pitt was on its last down, and twice Pickett ran it himself on 4th-and-short. The first run gave the Panthers a fresh set of downs. The second gave Pitt a commanding 34-20 lead.
Tennessee would respond on the next drive, as Hooker finally began to get his bearings. The ex-Hokie would complete his first two passes for first downs, with both going to Vols tight end Princeton Fant. Pitt defensive lineman Calijah Kancey would disrupt Tennessee’s rhythm with a sack, but Hooker would bounce back with a 23-yard run. A pass interference call on A.J. Woods would set Tennessee up with a goal-to-go situation, and Hooker would find Vols tight end Jacob Warren for an eight-yard score, making it 34-27, Pitt.
Pitt would regain possession at the start of the fourth quarter and make the most of it, as Pickett found Wayne for what looked to be a first down and little more but turned into a 40-yard gain when the Vols failed to take him down. On the next play, Addison reeled in a pass from Pickett for 21 yards, putting the Panthers on the Tennessee 11. Two plays later, Pickett would target Addison once more, finding him in the end zone for a five-yard score that would put the Panthers up 41-27.
Once again, the Pitt defense would fail to protect the 14-point cushion built up by the Pitt offense. This time, Hooker broke off a 19-yard run that landed the Volunteers in Pitt territory. He then found Warren twice for a total of 40 yards, and the Vols would score on a Jaylen Wright run to pull within seven points of Pitt.
After going three and out, Pitt would go on the defensive again. Damarri Mathis would get flagged for pass interference, giving up 31 yards, and the Vols would meander into the red zone. However, their drive would stall out there and be put down when John Petrishen took down Jaylen Wright for a loss on 4th-and-1 for a turnover on downs. The Pitt offense would fail to capitalize on the stop, but they would regain possession after a Brandon Hill pick.
With time winding down, Pitt would kill the clock, handing the ball off to Davis and Abanikanda. They found success with that strategy and would ride out the last few minutes of the game with the ball in their hands. And after a few kneel-downs, Pitt would come away with a 41-34 victory.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 2-0 on the season and 3-0 against the Volunteers, with all three victories coming in Knoxville. Pitt will now head home to prepare for its last two non-conference contests against Western Michigan and New Hampshire. And with this hurdle cleared, the Panthers have a shot at going undefeated in non-conference play for the second straight year. Prior to 2021, that feat had eluded Pitt for 30 years.