KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – A resilient Tennessee team carried the fight to Pitt for 60 minutes on Saturday afternoon, coming up just short in a 41-34 setback in the Johnny Majors Classic at Neyland Stadium.
With a crowd of 82,203 looking on, UT (1-1) drove deep into Pitt territory with an opportunity to tie the game at 41, but it was stymied on a fourth-and-one rush attempt from the three-yard line with 6:59 left in the contest. After forcing a three-and-out and a short punt by the Panthers (2-0), the Vols were back in business at the Pitt 34. An interception two plays later, however, ended the threat, with the visitors able to move the chains and run out the clock.
Redshirt senior quarterback Hendon Hooker came off the bench to complete 15 of 21 passes for 188 yards and two scores, and rush nine times for 49 yards for the Big Orange. He led the Vols to their final 21 points after starter Joe Milton III left the game in the second quarter and didn’t return.
Tennessee burst out to a 10-0 lead after the first 15 minutes and was able to weather a second quarter that saw the Panthers outscore the Vols, 27-10. The teams each tallied a touchdown apiece in the third and fourth periods during a game in which Pitt narrowly top the Big Orange in total offense, 397 to 374.
Four different Vols found the end zone, including sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Calloway, who had career bests in yards (59) and receptions (3), and redshirt junior tight end Jacob Warren, who also posted career highs in catches (5) and yards (55). Sophomore Jabari Small and freshman Jaylen Wright scored touchdowns from the running back position and helped UT rush for 136 yards on the day, with Milton III tallying a game-high 54 yards on five carries to lead both teams.
After registering a career-high 11 stops vs. Bowling Green last week, senior defensive back Theo Jackson matched his best with 11 more tackles vs. Pitt. Jackson, who has recorded back-to-back double-figure tackle games for the first time in his career, also chipped in two tackles for loss and added a pass break-up and a quarterback hurry. Redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks also matched his career best with eight stops, with two tackles for loss.
Tennessee struck first on a gorgeous late summer afternoon, forcing Pitt into a three-and-out and getting a blocked punt by freshman Christian Charles to set itself up at the Panther two-yard line. Small, carding his second touchdown in as many games, carried it over the left side into the end zone on the first play from scrimmage, with redshirt senior Chase McGrath adding the PAT to make it 7-0 Vols with 13:34 remaining in the first quarter.
The blocked punt by Charles was the first by a Tennessee player since Daniel Bituli recorded one and recovered in the end zone for a touchdown vs. South Carolina on Oct. 26, 2019. It also marked the first time the Vols scored on their first play from scrimmage since doing so on Nov. 13, 2010, vs. Ole Miss (80-yard TD pass from Tyler Bray to Justin Hunter).
UT produced points again on its third possession. After the Big Orange took over at its own 49 following a Panthers punt, the Vols marched to the Pitt 20 before the drive stalled. McGrath took it from there, kicking a 37-yard field goal to make it 10-0 with 4:44 left in the opening stanza.
Pitt answered seven seconds into the second quarter, covering 92 yards in 11 plays. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett capped the drive when he found senior wide receiver Melquise Stovall in the back of the end zone from 11 yards out. Redshirt sophomore placekicker Sam Scarton tacked on the extra point to pull the Panthers within three, 10-7.
The Vols responded on the next possession. After moving the ball from its own 25 to the Pitt three-yard-line, much of it on a career-long 54-yard run from Milton, UT’s momentum was halted by a trio of penalties. Tennessee had to settle for a field goal attempt, and McGrath’s kick from 48 yards was through the uprights, boosting the score to 13-7 with 11:16 to go in the second period.
The rush by Milton was the longest carry by a Tennessee quarterback since Joshua Dobbs had a 70-yard dash against Missouri on Nov. 19, 2016, in a 63-37 win.
Pitt wasted little time in bouncing back. The Panthers covered 75 yards in five plays, going up 14-13 with 9:25 left in the half. Junior wide receiver Jared Wayne caught a lateral from Pickett and then fired it downfield to senior tight end Lucas Krull in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown. Scarton’s PAT moved the visitors into the lead for the first time.
Following a sack and fumble recovery by Pitt defensive tackle Keyshon Camp at the Tennessee 18, the Panthers were deep in UT territory once again. The Vol defense stiffened, however, limiting the visitors to a 38-yard Scarton field goal and trailing 17-13 with 8:34 left in the second quarter.
After sophomore defensive end Tyler Baron’s sack ended Pitt’s drive and quest for the end zone, the Panthers settled for three with 3:53 left before the half, as Scarton split the uprights from 27 yards away to push the score to 20-13.
The Vols kept their composure, finding pay-dirt on their next possession and knotting the score at 20-all with 2:16 to go before the half. Hooker, on in place of Milton, connected with Calloway, who shook loose defenders along the right sideline and raced 44 yards to the end zone. McGrath’s PAT followed Calloway’s first touchdown as a Vol and longest career reception, as well as Hooker’s first TD pass with the Big Orange.
Pitt struck once more before the half ended, getting a two-yard rush by Vincent Davis and a Scarton PAT with 19 ticks remaining to take a 27-20 lead into the locker room.
The Panthers extended their lead to 34-20 with 4:49 to go in the third. Pickett burrowed his way in from one yard out, and Scarton added the point after.
The Vols stormed right back. After a redshirt junior wideout Velus Jones Jr. kickoff return set the Vols up at the 37, Hooker engineered a six-play 63-yard drive, needing only 2:10 to finish it. Along the way, the transfer from Virginia Tech notched a key 23-yard run on a third-and-15, hit redshirt senior tight end Princeton Fant twice for a combined 28 yards and capped the drive with an eight-yard TD pass to another trusty tight end, Warren. McGrath nailed the PAT to cut the deficit to 34-27 with 2:32 remaining in the third frame.
Pitt responded with a quick drive of its own, covering 75 yards in six plays in a span of 2:31. Pickett connected with sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison on a five-yard strike, and Scarton booted the extra point to make it 41-27 Panthers with 12:22 left in the fourth quarter.
Jones Jr. produced another strong return, taking the ensuing Pitt kickoff out of the end zone and carrying it to the UT 39 to eclipse 2,500 career yards and move the needle to 2,519. Tennessee took full advantage of the great field position, taking only 2:06 to navigate 61 yards in seven plays. After coming up shy of the end zone on the two preceding plays, Wright barreled over the goal line from one yard out with 10:09 to go in the final period. McGrath’s PAT cut Pitt’s lead to 41-34, with Warren accounting for 40 yards on two receptions and Hooker adding a 19-yard run to help account for what turned out to be the game’s final score.
The Vols are back at Neyland Stadium for another noon contest next Saturday, as they play host to Tennessee Tech. That game will be available for streaming on SECN+.