Each week, the two sports editors and football beat writers, Josh Lane and Ethan Stone, will give their predictions and keys to Tennessee’s weekly matchup.
Let’s talk about the Johnny Majors Classic.
1. Have success in the passing game
An offensive showing from Joe Milton III and the Vols receivers like they had against Bowling Green will not cut it against Pitt. Sure, the offense was fast, and Milton connected with Cedric Tillman for a flashy 40-yard score, but what killed the Vols in the second and third quarter was the lack of a passing game from Milton. He completed just two passes after the first quarter.
Tennessee doesn’t have the ability to rely on its run game in the same way it did last Thursday. The Vols’ No. 1 back on the week one depth chart, Tiyon Evans, is currently doubtful for Saturday. Evans ran for 116 yards and a touchdown against Bowling Green, so it will be up to Jabari Small and freshman Jaylen Wright to make up the missing yardage. That’s easier said than done, as Pitt boasts one of the country’s better defensive lines, led by the likes of John Petrishen, Calijah Kancey and Keyshon Camp. Which brings me to my next key. . .
2. Make do with a banged-up offensive line
Containing Pitt’s pass attack, particularly among its front four, will be crucial for Tennessee’s offensive line — as it might look much different than it did last Thursday. Starting center Cooper Mays suffered an ankle injury against Bowling Green, which shifted Jerome Carvin to center and thrust backup Ollie Lane into action at left guard for a good portion of the game. The difference was noticeable, as Bowling Green finally put pressure on Milton.
Head football coach Josh Heupel said Thursday that Mays has made “some really good jumps” over the last 48 hours, but it will still be a Saturday morning decision whether or not he is able to play. If he is unavailable, it will be up to Carvin and Lane to protect Milton from a pass rush that recorded five sacks last week versus UMass.
1. Continue success on the ground
Bowling Green doesn’t exactly have a Georgia-level defense, but the Vols running game was among the most surprising positives from last week’s matchup. Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small had to have planned rushing for exactly 116 yards and a touchdown each.
Okay, maybe not. More importantly, Evans is doubtful in week two — an obvious blow to a Tennessee offense that will have enough to deal with already. As Josh said, Pitt’s defense is legit. Milton won’t be able to stand in the pocket to the extent of his outing in week one, and some of that slack is going to have to be saved by the running backs once more if he is unable to adapt.
2. Force turnovers
An inexperienced offense can only do so much against a defense at the level of Pitt. At some point, the defense is going to have to help out and gift Milton and the rest of the offense a short field or two.
Turnovers are the best way to go about this. Pitt’s offense pales in comparison to its defense, and there isn’t much of an excuse not to take advantage of that. The Panthers fumbled twice last week against UMass.
If I had to take it even further, I’d expect someone other than Theo Jackson to step up in this regard. Jackson was incredible against Bowling Green. Tennessee can certainly benefit from more performances like that from the rest of the unit.
Spread: Pitt -3.0
This should be a good one. Tennessee and Pitt are in a pretty similar spot in their rebuilding process, and each program is the other’s toughest non-conference matchup.
I think that Pitt defense will be too much for the Vols. If Mays is unavailable, the Vols’ offensive line could be a serious problem. And with Evans doubtful, more pressure falls on Milton and an offense still undergoing the growing pains of implementing a new system. I just don’t see Tennessee putting up more than a couple of scores.
Pitt 17, Tennessee 14
The Johnny Majors Classic is sure to deliver. This week offers a step up in competition level for both teams, as well as an adequate test of their own skill.
I believe experience prevails in this instance. Kenny Pickett is the definition of a game manager that should benefit from a stout defensive line against a slightly battered Vols O-line. Tennessee scores on their first drive, then struggles after adjustments.
Pitt 24, Tennessee 20