Josh Heupel’s teams are known for their fast-paced and explosive offenses but No. 24 Tennessee’s (2-0) 34-27 overtime win against No. 17 Pittsburgh (1-1) on Saturday was decided with a ferocious defense.
The Vols’ offense stalled in the second half with just three points scored in the final two quarters of regulation. This put pressure on the defense to hold the Panther attack. The unit came through in a big way holding Pitt to just 10 points in the second half and an empty possession in overtime.
A key component of the defense was senior safety, Trevon Flowers. Flowers got out to a quick start on Saturday with a crucial interception with six minutes left in the first quarter. The pick came after the Vols failed to put up points in three straight possessions. Pitt was threatening to go up three scores until Flowers delivered with the acrobatic catch in the endzone to flip the momentum.
“We got our feet kind of underneath us a little bit after that play,” said Heupel on the interception. “It stopped the momentum, the bleeding, whatever you want to say. It gave us a chance to get going the other direction. Big play.”
However, following the interception, Flowers found himself on the wrong side of two big plays.
At the beginning of the second quarter, Kedon Slovis found Gavin Bartholomew for a 57-yard touchdown reception that featured Bartholomew hurdling Flowers en route to the score.
Then, with seven and a half minutes to go in regulation, Flowers muffed a punt giving the ball back to Pitt who trailed by just seven. Pitt would go on to tie the game and force overtime following the error.
After the Vols struck first in the extra period, Pitt was tasked with scoring a touchdown to force a second overtime. With their back against the wall, the Panthers connected on a fourth-down throw to get inside the ten.
However, on third-and-goal, Flowers made a potentially game-saving play. After showing blitz, he made his way around the edge of the offensive line and sacked quarterback Nick Patti for a big loss.
“Man, just (Flowers) has grown so much,” said Heupel. “And you can see that in the way he looks, how he approaches every day and it shows up in the way that he plays. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to play perfect. This game ain’t ever going to be perfect. But to be able to reset after (the muffed punt), the look in his eyes, the defense got back in the huddle. You could tell he was disappointed, but you could see it in his eyes. It showed in the way that he finished the football game.”
On the resulting fourth-and-goal from the 21-yard line, Pitt couldn’t complete the pass and the Vols walked away with a top-25 win on the road.
Flower’s redemption late in the game was a prime example of the mentality the Tennessee defense posseses. Despite struggling at times, Flowers and the unit made big plays when it mattered to lead the Vols to a big win.
The aggressive defense finished the game with 69 tackles, four sacks, nine tackles for loss, an interception, four pass breakups, 16 quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.
“Defensive effort, just in general, absolutely relentless,” said Heupel. “I said it earlier, the second, third and fourth quarter, that’s as good of a performance as I’ve been around in a long time. They got put in a lot of bad positions, from turnovers, short fields, special teams. They reset, they played. They were physical, the front four, and their pressures were relentless on the quarterback all night long. If we hadn’t sacked them, we were hitting them early in the ballgame. Those were completions a couple times, on those first drives. I heard coach (Tim) Banks, Coach G (Rodney Garner), I said it, just keep coming, you’re going to hit home here eventually. I thought the overall effort from them was special.”
Outside of Flowers, who finished with seven tackles, a sack and an interception, other impactful defenders included Aaron Beasley, Kamal Hadden and Byron Young. Beasley recorded a game-high 14 tackles with one for loss, a pass breakup and three quarterback hurries. Hadden had his second-straight impressive game in the secondary with seven tackles, a pass breakup, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. Young’s efforts were rewarded with SEC defensive lineman of the week after he posted a sack, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
The defense’s next test will be against the Akron Zips on Saturday at 7 p.m. The match will air on SECN+/ESPN+. Tennessee is currently favored by 48.5 points.
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 email@example.com