PITTSBURGH — Pat Narduzzi’s squad entered overtime against all odds, following a game of injuries to key offensive and defensive starters, missed field goals and turnover on downs resulting in stymied offensive possessions.
Nearly 60 minutes of leaving too many opportunities on the field at Acrisure Stadium came back to bite Pitt in the behind as Tennessee walked off the field with a 34-27 win over Pitt after Nick Patti’s 4th-and-20 pass fell incomplete in overtime.
Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns, including 162 yards and two touchdowns to Cedric Tillman, and Pitt’s offense wasn’t able to do enough to keep up with Kedon Slovis sidelined in the second half.
Cedric Tillman proved to be a thorn in Pitt’s side all night, along with a plethora of other issues on a very, very rough night at Acrisure Stadium, and he turned M.J. Devonshire inside out to get himself wide open for a go-ahead touchdown catch to open the overtime period.
After a sideline catch from Jared Wayne was called a catch and overturned, a 4th-and-5 conversion to Konata Mumpfield kept Pitt alive. But on a 3rd-and-goal from the 8-yard line, Pitt’s offensive line couldn’t stop the wave of Tennessee’s rushers and Patti was dragged down for a 12-yard loss.
On 4th-and-goal from the 20-yard line, Patti dropped back and fired a ball to Mumpfield streaking underneath, but the ball fell incomplete and Tennessee walked off as overtime winners.
Slovis led the way for Pitt in the first half with 195 yards and a touchdown on 14 completions, and Israel Abanikanda turned in a performance of 154 yards and a touchdown — along with a 21-yard reception — to help keep Pitt alive.
Pitt’s defense recorded three sacks, five tackles for loss, forced a fumble, blocked a punt and recovered a muffed punt, but the effort wasn’t enough against a fast-paced Tennessee offense in the end.
A quick, 35 second three and out followed by a slightly less quick minute, 14 second three and out — a six play stretch in which Tennessee’s vaunted offense only racked up two yards on a Hooker draw — allowed Pitt to try to establish some offensive momentum in the early going.
Pitt turned a short field into a 30-yard field goal from Ben Sauls, and while the follow-up drive was lightning quick, I don’t think anyone was complaining about a 76-yard halfback draw right through the heart of the Tennessee defense. Abanikanda’s run, the longest Pitt rushing touchdown since Qadree Ollison rumbled for a 98-yard score against Virginia Tech in 2018, was a textbook example of his explosion, agility and ability to break tackles.
With a 10-0 lead, following a beautiful pass breakup from A.J. Woods to force a turnover on downs from Tennessee, Pitt had a chance to really put the pedal to the metal, but a ball that bounced off Bub Means’ hands in the end zone was corraled by Tennessee’s Trevon Flowers. The Vols would score on the next three offensive possessions — four of the next five — following the interception.
An 11-play, 80-yard drive capped by a Jabari Small 1-yard touchdown dive in 3:14.
A 9-play, 71-yard drive capped by a 32-yard touchdown toss to Bru McCoy in 3:13.
A 3-play, 66-yard drive capped by another Jabari Small 1-yard dive (set up by a 61-yard strike to Cedric Hillman) in :35.
A 3-play, 8-yard drive ended by a 37-yard Chase McGrath field goal in :10.
Pitt’s offense in the midst of the 24-7 Tennessee run to end the half came courtesy of Gavin Batholomew and an incredibly athletic hurdle over a would-be Tennessee defender to race for a 57-yard touchdown and secure a 17-7 Pitt lead. However, any further sustained offense from Pitt was few and far between.
Good lord, Gavin. pic.twitter.com/Ti9iEPcld2
— Karl Ludwig (@LudwigKarl8) September 10, 2022
Pitt turned the ball over on downs on a 4th-and-2 from the Tennessee 28-yard line after a ? got an unblocked rush and clobbered Slovis in the backfield. A late second quarter chance, after the defense recorded its first two splash plays in the form of a Calijah Kancey tackle for loss and David Green sack, resulted in an immediate strip-sack from Tennessee that likely injured Slovis and allowed the Vols a few more points.
It appeared that M.J. Devonshire came down with an interception in the end zone, but upon review, his toe was just touching the white paint on the sideline. A 37-yard field goal from Tennessee’s Chase McGrath made it a 24-17 Vols lead at the half. And when Pitt returned to the field in the second half, Slovis didn’t join his team.
Pitt’s defense clamped down in the second half, racking up 29 yards on just 12 plays in the third quarter. P.J. O’Brien blocked a punt, Tylar Wiltz’s stripped Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright and Erick Hallett recovered it.
But Pitt was also unable to find the end zone in the third quarter as Patti adjusted to being in the game without a warmup, and the blocked punt resulted in a missed field goal from Sauls.
The forced fumble resulted in a 36-yard field goal, but it also resulted in Patti suffering an injury of his own. However, he would be able to return to the contest.
Pitt’s defense pulled the ol’ bend, don’t break on the ensuing drive. A fourth down conversion from Tillman continued the Vols’ drive inside Pitt territory, but a Kancey sack forced a 51-yard field goal attempt on 4th-and-19. And Pitt led the offense back onto the field after a brief scare. The offensive inconsistency under Patti continued, but of course, Flowers muffed Sam Vander Haar’s punt, and Byron Floyd recovered it.
With a beat-up Patti, Pitt managed to punch into the end zone on a 4th-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Patti dropped back, fired a dart to Wayne in the back of the end zone and he secured the ball and came down with the clutch game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Pitt’s defense re-took the field with 2:23 left in the fourth quarter, forced a 4th-and-3 opportunity just beyond midfield — courtesy of a couple of nice plays from Haba Baldonado — and Narduzzi decided to not go for the win and simply take the game into overtime. And in overtime, Tennessee did enough to put Pitt away.
Pitt will travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan next week for a 7:30 p.m. contest against Western Michigan. With a 1-1 start to the season, Pitt will have a chance to enter conference place 3-1, but there are some lingering injuries piling up and ones that will need to be addressed going forward.