Dan Fleser: Many More Vol Questions Will Be Answered By Pittsburgh Contest

  • Thursday, September 8, 2022
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Pittsburgh will ask more questions, many more, of Tennessee and the state of the Vols’ football play than Ball State did in the season opener.

Josh Heupel on Monday anticipated the scope and nature of Saturday’s inquiry at Acrisure Stadium. Tennessee’s coach characterized the competitive Q & A in terms of “understanding the type of game that’s going to be played.”

“The little things are going to add up to the big things that show up on the scoreboard,” he said.

“We have to do a great job of taking care of the football. We have to find a way to create turnovers. Special teams will be a huge part of the football game, field position as well and maximizing our opportunities.”

The game’s marquee value, which owes something to Pitt’s hard-fought 41-34 victory at Neyland Stadium last season, was enhanced this week by the No. 24 Vols joining the No. 17 Panthers (1-0) in the Associated Press national rankings. Tennessee hadn’t been ranked in nearly two years.  

Hendon Hooker will have a hand in any big things UT puts up on the scoreboard. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi alluded to the sixth-year senior’s time at Virginia Tech in saying the Panthers have seen him “for the last 12 years at quarterback.” Narduzzi was more serious in noting the then-and-now difference in Hooker’s play.

“Two totally different guys,” Narduzzi said. “That’s obviously a tribute. That’s no slam on what Virginia Tech did with him but he fits into (UT’s) offense and his quarterback coach is coaching the heck out of him, and I think he’s really, really sharp.”

Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said on Tuesday that Hooker has reached full fluency in the Vols’ offense.

“He’s at the point right now the way he’s playing, you got an open book with him, you feel comfortable,” Halzle said. “He’ll operate anything you put him out there (in).”

That’s a big deal, provided Hooker has time and room to operate. Unlike Ball State, which guarded almost exclusively against the big play, Pittsburgh’s defense will try to create some of their own. The Panthers had five sacks, recovered two fumbles and intercepted a pass against the Vols last season. In their season opener against West Virginia, they had three sacks and converted a tipped pass into an interception and a 56-yard return for the winning score.

Offensive guard Jerome Carvin said the Vols will have to be sharp mentally and not just match the Panthers’ intensity but exceed it.

“We have to be on our Ps and Qs,’’ Carvin said. “We have to be able to communicate well with each other up front as well as the tight ends and (running) backs, whether that’s in pass protection (or) putting hats on hats in the run game.”

If the game will demand this much of Tennessee’s potent offense, imagine what it will ask of the Vols’ defense.

Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for 308 yards and a TD against West Virginia, but he also was sacked five times. The Vols should have more opportunity against him than Ball State’s John Paddock, who avoided any sacks by throwing quick passes.

Tennessee’s play up front will determine the extent of the challenges faced by the defense. Pitt has a capable running back in Rodney Hammond Jr., who rushed for 74 yards and two TDs last week. Furthermore, Slovis will be throwing to both wide receivers and backs out of the backfield, testing UT’s coverage and its depth.

Tennessee’s linebackers and defensive backs, in particular, might feel like they’re on a witness stand come Saturday. A lot could be asked of them.



Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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