The Tennessee Volunteers have a lot riding on this Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Panthers. Last year, the Vols lost to Pitt early in the season.
By Matt Zemek
It’s true that last year Pittsburgh won the ACC championship and had a very good team. Tennessee was just beginning to learn how to play together under coach Josh Heupel. Fine. Now, however, Pitt has lost a few significant members of that ACC championship group. It’s Year 2 under Heupel. The expectations are rightly high. There are no excuses. This is a game Tennessee can and should win, which means it’s a must-win for Heupel if he is to gain the faith and trust of a Tennessee fan base which is starving for national relevance and significant football achievements.
Let’s look at the three primary keys for the Vols against the Panthers, in a matchup of two teams the late Johnny Majors both coached in his long and storied football career.
1 – Win the battle up front
Heupel has a high-octane offense, but it won’t get off the ground unless the Vols win the battle in the trenches. That is what will spring big runs and enable the Vols to hit home-run passes down the field. Pittsburgh’s defensive line was outplayed by West Virginia’s offensive line for most of the second half of last week’s game. Tennessee should expect to wear down Pitt’s defensive front in the second half, much as West Virginia did. A failure to win this particular matchup not only means likely defeat; it would be a terrible reflection on the state of the program and the coaching staff. Establishing physical superiority is both an acute need and something Tennessee should be able to achieve in this contest.
2 – Hendon Hooker
Let’s put it plainly: This is a game in which Hendon Hooker is the better quarterback and should be able to establish himself as such. Last week, Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis was outplayed by West Virginia counterpart J.T. Daniels. Slovis didn’t have a bad game, but Daniels was a lot more dynamic. Yes, the game was decided by a West Virginia pick-six, but it had nothing to do with Daniels’ throw; the throw was perfect, and it clanged off the hands of the West Virginia wide receiver, creating Pitt’s go-ahead touchdown. Slovis can make great throws when given ample time in the pocket, but if he lacks time, he does not make plays on the run. This is where Hooker separates himself from Slovis. He has more options on plays, more ways to win a game. He needs to show the full arsenal of his skills against Pitt.
3 – Pass rush
We saw Purdue carve up the Vols in the Music City Bowl without much of a running attack. Tennessee will win this game if it generates a strong pass rush against Kedon Slovis, who doesn’t handle pressure well. If Tennessee can bother Slovis, it’s hard to see the Vols losing. This is the time for a team’s weakness to become more of a strength.
Saturday‘s game kicks off at 2:30 PM CT (3:30 PM ET). You can watch this SEC football game on the ABC Network.