By Jimmy Hyams
Treyvon Flowers lined up to the right of the Tennessee defense, flanking the defensive end.
You knew he was going to blitz.
That had been Tennessee’s M.O. throughout the game, putting pressure on Pitt’s quarterbacks, playing aggressively in hopes of disrupting the offense.
But this was overtime. One false step could alter the outcome.
Flowers shot through a gap on the left side of Pitt’s line and sacked Nick Patti for a 12-yard loss on a crucial third-and-goal from the UT 9-yard line.
On the next play, Patti fired an incompletion on fourth down at the 21 and No. 24 Tennessee (2-0) escaped with a 34-27 victory Saturday over No. 17 Pitt (1-1) at the Steelers’ Stadium near Three Rivers.
Tennessee’s first game in the state of Pennsylvania yielded the Vols first win over Pitt in four tries.
And it wouldn’t have happened without Flowers’ key sack and Tennessee’s resilient defense.
Time after time, Tennessee’s offense or special teams put the defense in harm’s way.
For the most part, the defense responded.
When the offense stalled in the second half, scoring just a lone field goal, the defense held Pitt to 10 points. Pitt scored after a blocked punt gave the Panthers’ the ball at the UT 19 and a muffed punt by Flowers gave Pitt the ball at the UT 39.
If Pitt hadn’t been gifted those short fields, Tennessee might have pitched a shutout in the second half.
Nonetheless, Tennessee rose to the occasion when it had to, delighting the thousands of resourceful UT fans that managed to buy tickets to the away game.
The Vols made enough major mistakes in the second Johnny Majors Classic to incur a defeat.
But the defense would have none of it.
It’s rare when defense is the reason a Josh Heupel team wins a game, but it happened at Pitt.
“How about that effort from our defense,’’ Heupel said, after a four-sack, 16-hurry showing. “It was a dominant performance from them most of the second half. … That was a big-time effort.’’
The Vols were criticized the week before for not getting a sack against Ball State. But defensive coordinator Tim Banks played a vanilla scheme, rarely blitzing.
Banks took a different approach against Pitt, and it worked. UT blitzed linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties. It hit Pitt starter Kedon Slovis so often, he couldn’t play the second half.
It hit Patti so often, he was left with a limp.
Heupel expressed some frustration that Pitt was able to complete several first-half passes just before Slovis was slammed. But the relentless pressure paid dividends.
Tennessee did allow a fourth-down quarterback touchdown pass with 2:23 left that tied the game at 27-all. But the Vols wouldn’t have been in that situation if the offense had been more productive.
In overtime, UT scored on Hooker’s 18-yard touchdown run but it was nullified by a holding penalty.
On the next play, Hooker found Cedric Tillman for a 28-yard score. Tillman, who earlier dropped a touchdown pass and was stopped a foot short on another catch, caught nine passes for 161 yards and was targeted at least 17 times.
“I was just the better man that play,’’ Tillman said of beating Pitt’s defensive back on the TD catch. “I’m a big body receiver. Nine times out of 10 I trust myself, 10 times out of 10 I trust myself (to make that catch).’’
When Pitt got the ball in overtime, it converted a fourth-and-5, but three plays later, Flowers made up for his muffed punt by sacking Patti for a 12-yard loss on a blitz.
“All week long,’’ Heupel said, “I said it was going to take 60 minutes and it took more. I didn’t know I was lying.’’
Tennessee’s offense, which had scored at least 45 points in four consecutive games, went into a rare funk. It went three-and-out on the first two drives of the game and failed on fourth down on the next possession.
UT then scored touchdowns on the next three series and kicked a field goal before half for a 24-17 lead.
In the second half, UT went without a touchdown as the Vols struggled to run the ball and protect Hooker. But the defense bowed up and delivered when it mattered most.
The Vols ran for just 91 yards on 39 carries and lost two fumbles.
But Pitt was unable to sustain any success on offense. The Panthers went 5 of 17 on third-down and missed two field-goal attempts.
Tennessee had to overcome adversity to get the victory. It had a punt blocked, muffed a punt, had a touchdown nullified by a penalty and a dropped touchdown pass.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said last week the Panthers beat a good team with an average or below average performance.
Tennessee did just that against Pitt.
Tennessee has now played in more overtime games that any team in college history – and won more overtime games than any team in college history.
“Man,’’ Huepel said. “what a victory for this program.’’
And what a victory for Tennessee’s defense.
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