May 21, 2024

No. 24 Tennessee vs. No. 17 Pittsburgh Game Day Preview

The Vols look to avenge last season’s loss to the Panthers in the Johnny Majors Classic in their trip to Pittsburgh on Saturday.

The Tennessee Vols' defense lines up for a stop against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Sept. 11, 2021 in Knoxville, TN. TNJN/Ryan Sylvia.

After opening the 2022 season with a 59-10 routing of Ball State, No. 24 Tennessee (1-0) will now face No. 17 Pittsburgh (1-0) at Acrisure Stadium on Saturday. Here is everything you need to know about the top-25 matchup and the second installment of the Johnny Majors Classic.

Last Week

To kick off the season, the Vols hosted Ball State on Thursday in an attempt to iron out the kinks of 2021.

What followed was pure domination from Tennessee from start to finish. The Vols’ first defensive play from scrimmage was an interception and their first offensive play was a touchdown strike from Hendon Hooker to Jalin Hyatt.

In just over a half of play, Hooker recorded 221 passing yards with two passing touchdowns and 12 rushing yards with two rushing touchdowns. His favorite target remained Cedric Tillman as the pair connected six times for 68 yards.

Along with Hyatt, Jimmy Holiday and Walker Merrill also recorded touchdown catches in the game. Ramel Keyton, Bru McCoy and Squirrel White also brought in multiple receptions.

The running attack was led by Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright who combined for 151 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Freshman Dylan Sampson also received playtime and finished with 32 yards and a touchdown.

On defense, Warren Burrell, Christian Charles and Aaron Beasley led the team in tackles with eight. Trevon Flowers and Jeremy Banks followed them with seven and six, respectively. The defense also came up with two interceptions from plays made by Tamarion McDonald and Kamal Hadden.

Overall, the starting units got plenty of playtime in an attempt to sharpen up for the road test against Pittsburgh in the following week. Then, the second half of the game was used as an opportunity to work freshmen and reserves into the match. Almost the entire roster gained experience that will surely help going forward.

Pitt’s Opener

Pitt had a much more challenging opening game than Tennessee. West Virginia came to town to challenge the Panthers in a game that came down to the wire.

Ultimately, Pitt would prevail with a 38-31 win on Thursday to survive the Backyard Brawl. A late Panthers touchdown tied the game at 31 and then a pick-6 on the following drive gave Pitt the edge.

With star quarterback Kenny Pickett selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, Kedon Slovis was given the reins to the offense after transferring from USC. He finished the night with 308 yards through the air for one touchdown.
With Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Jordan Addison departing for USC, the Pitt offense needed a new go-to weapon, as well. However, resulting was a widespread distribution of the ball with no wideout ending with more than five receptions.

The leading receivers were Jared Wayne who finished with three catches for 89 yards including a 64-yard reception and Konata Mumpfield who finished with five catches for 71 yards. The lone touchdown reception came from runningback Israel Abanikanda on a 24-yard score.

Leading the ground attack was Rodney Hammond Jr. who ended the night with 74 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Abanikanda also had eight attempts for 15 yards.

The offensive group looked effective in the first game of the year, but the defense saw its struggles.

The Mountaineer offense rushed the ball for 190 yards with freshman CJ Donaldson accounting for 125 of them with a touchdown. The Pitt front looked helpless as West Virginia moved the ball with ease on rush attempts.

However, the Panther defense cracked down on passing plays. The defensive line was effective in rushing the quarterback as they recorded three sacks and seven quarterback hurries. They also produced multiple fumbles. West Virginia quarterback JT Daniels completed just 57.5% of his passes while also being forced into a crucial interception to seal the game.

Overall, Pitt showed some weaknesses against West Virginia but was still able to escape with a win. The challenge will be harder when Tennessee comes to town but a quality opponent in Week 1 will give the Panthers valuable film and experience heading into the marquee matchup vs. the Volunteers.

Vols vs. Panthers 2021

Last year, Pitt traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee in the first game of the Johnny Majors Classic. The Panthers would hold on to win the game 41-34 after a big second quarter that featured 27 points.

Starting the game at quarterback for the Vols was Joe Milton. Milton threw for 50 yards and rushed for 54 in the first half before going down with an injury. Hooker would replace him in an effort that fell just short of a win. His performance in the game earned him the starting job for the rest of the season, though.

One of Tennessee’s biggest weaknesses in the game was the turnover margin. Both Hooker and Milton lost a fumble during the match and Hooker threw a costly interception late in the fourth quarter to seal the game. With three turnovers going against Tennessee, the defense couldn’t produce any takeaways.

Tennessee’s offense also struggled to move the ball through the rush attack outside of its quarterbacks. Hooker and Milton combined for 103 rushing yards but backs Small and Wright only totaled 33.

However, a positive of the Vols’ offense was its pass game. The offense featured both tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant as they combined for 102 receiving yards and a touchdown. The receiving unit as a whole caught 22 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns as they had success moving the ball down the field.

On defense, Tennessee fell flat in its attempt to stop the Panthers’ pass attack. Pickett threw the ball for 285 yards and two touchdowns with little resistance. Wayne also added a passing touchdown as a wide receiver on a trick play.

On rushes, Pitt only averaged 2.1 yards per attempt with Vincent Davis receiving most of the load. Abanikanda also saw a share of touches.

With Pitt’s win, the Panthers took a 3-0 series lead. All three matches were played in Knoxville and Tennessee’s trip to Pittsburgh will be the program’s first game in the state of Pennsylvania.

5 Key Goals for the Vols

Score over 35 points

If Tennessee hopes to come away with a win, it will need to produce points. Pitt showed its ability to score against West Virginia and will likely find success against the Vols’ defensive unit. To counteract this, Tennessee will need to score 35+ points in the contest and win in a shootout.

Win the turnover battle

Last year, Pitt forced three turnovers compared to Tennessee’s zero. This will need to change this time around as the Vols can’t afford to give up free possessions to the Panthers. If Tennessee can hold onto the ball and force mistakes on defense, then they will be in a position to win.

Give up three or fewer sacks

In the first matchup, the Panthers brought down the quarterback five times. Now, the impressive defensive front will look to repeat the performance and blow up the Vols’ offense. Tennessee’s offensive line needs to keep Hooker upright and let the offense move the ball down the field this time around.

Score on the opening two drives

Last year, Tennessee was the best team in the country in the first quarter but slowed down in the remainder of the game. This will likely be a similar case this year, so the Vols need to get on the board quickly and claim a lead. Wasted drives early will only hurt Tennessee as the game progresses so it’s imperative they strike while the irons hot.

Give up fewer penalty yards than Pitt

The Vols won’t be able to afford false starts on offense that slow down the tempo and gift free yards. On defense, they won’t be able to gift yards on pass interferences and other back-breaking penalties. The entire team needs to stay disciplined throughout the contest for the Vols to come out on top.

Editor’s Pick

Although Tennessee’s roster looks the same in many aspects, it will be a very different game than last year. The Vols now have an entire season under their belt in the Josh Heupel era and are more comfortable with the system. Last year’s contest was the first true test of the season and a game that featured a starting quarterback who hasn’t started a game since. Now, most positions are set and the offense is operating like a well-oiled machine.

Tennessee’s ability to catch defenses off guard and produce big plays will likely be on display on Saturday. Pitt’s inability to stop the run will be further exposed through the legs of Small and Hooker. When adjusting to that aspect of the game, there will be openings for receivers such as Tillman, McCoy and Hyatt.

Tennessee will do what it wants on offense so the game comes down to if the Vols can hold Pitt’s attack. The defensive unit remains questionable but boasts more depth than a year ago. With Pitt downgrading at quarterback and wide receiver, Tennessee’s defense should be able to contain the passing game better than its last affair.

Ultimately, Hooker will account for four touchdowns and Tennessee will move the ball effectively down the field. Small will rush for over 80 yards and punch in a score of his own. The defense will have its share of struggles and give up a few big plays but come through when it matters. The game will be close but the Vols will edge the Panthers.

Tennessee – 38
Pittsburgh – 30

Game Time and Coverage

Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. in Pittsburgh, Pa. at Acrisure Stadium. The game airs on ABC and TNJN will have more coverage following the game.

Sports Editor | + posts

Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at rsylvia@vols.utk.edu