Hooker, defense lead No. 24 Tennessee past No. 17 Pitt in OT

Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK
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PITTSBURGH – Tennessee coach Josh Heupel isn’t sure his team would have found a way a year ago to win a game where it fumbled twice and allowed a blocked punt. All in the second half. On the road. Against a program coming off a Power Five conference title.

It’s not last season. The 24th-ranked Volunteers may be maturing in front of their coach’s eyes. The latest proof came in a draining 34-27 overtime victory over No. 17 Pitt on Saturday, a four-hour physical and emotional marathon that ended with Tennessee spilling onto the field in a mixture of joy and relief.

“There’s a certain level of maturity that we certainly didn’t have last year at times,” said Heupel, who is in his second season of trying to restore the Volunteers to relevancy in the SEC. “Our kids are willing to continue to compete. They handled the flows, the ups and downs of the game the right way.”

There were plenty of each to go around. The Volunteers (2-0) allowed a game-tying touchdown pass from Pitt backup quarterback Nick Patti with 2:23 to go but regrouped to win it on a 28-yard lob from Hendon Hooker to Cedric Tillman on Tennessee’s first possession of the extra period.

The Volunteers’ defense, which had been relentless over the final three-plus quarters following a slow start, did the rest. It used a third-down sack and the one last of a seemingly unending streak of quarterback pressures to force Patti to throw incomplete on fourth down to end it.

“The second, third and fourth quarter, that’s as good a performance as I’ve been around in a long time,” Heupel said of a defense that struggled against quality competition in 2021. “They got put in a lot of bad positions. … I thought the overall effort from them was special.”

The defense needed to be on a night when the offense, which has become the program’s calling card, spent much of the second half running in place.

While Hooker finished with 325 yards passing and two touchdowns and Tillman caught nine passes for 162 yards, Tennessee couldn’t put the Panthers away even with Pitt severely limited.

The Panthers (1-1) lost starting quarterback Kedon Slovis to an undisclosed injury at the end of the first half and Patti spent the final quarter-plus effectively on one leg after twisting his knee while getting sacked.

The Volunteers allowed a blocked punt, saw a fumble cut short a drive and gave Pitt life late when Tre Flowers muffed a punt with 7:28 to go. The Panthers slowly moved the ball deep into Tennessee territory before a backpedaling Patti found Jared Wayne for a 4-yard score on fourth-and-goal to tie it at 27 with 2:23 to play.

Pitt finally ran out of chances in overtime. Patti – who finished 9 of 20 for 79 yards – drove the Panthers inside the 10 but Tennessee’s fourth sack forced Patti into a “heave and pray” and when his final pass fell to the turf, the Volunteers had found a way to win the type of game they’d grown accustomed to losing in recent years.

“(The defense) played amazing, you know, especially in the second half,” Tillman said. “You know, we’re not in his game if they don’t make the plays that they did.”

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

The Panthers missed a pair of field goals and saw a red-zone possession in the first quarter end with an interception instead.

“I told our guys, it’s a game of inches, and there were inches all over the place that we needed to get,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said.

Narduzzi declined to give specifics on the nature of Slovis’ injury, saying only that he was hurt while getting sacked late in the first half that turned into a fumble – allowing Tennessee to take a 24-17 lead into the break.

Slovis, who finished 14 of 24 for 195 yards with a touchdown and a pick, felt “good” after the game according to Narduzzi.

Israel Abanikanda ran for 154 yards and a touchdown for Pitt.

THE TAKEAWAY

Tennessee: The Volunteers are eyeing a big step forward this fall. Whether they take it will rely heavily on a defense that struggled against quality opponents in 2021. So far, so good.

Pitt: The offense entered the season with plenty of question marks following Kenny Pickett‘s graduation. The offensive line was not supposed to be one of them. There were times Saturday when there were multiple white jerseys in the Panther backfield almost immediately after the snap.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Panthers could potentially fall out of the poll for the first time since Halloween after letting an early 11-point lead get away. The Volunteers should vault into the Top 20 for the first time since October 2016 when the poll is released Sunday.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: Hosts Akron next Saturday, with a visit from Florida looming on Sept. 24.

Pitt: Travels to Western Michigan next Saturday hoping to avenge a stunning home loss to the Broncos last fall.

Pac-12 looking stronger at top after early-season losses

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
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When Oregon got throttled by top-ranked Georgia and Utah lost at Florida, it appeared as though the Pac-12 was headed toward another College Football Playoff miss.

One week into the season and two of the conference’s top teams had already failed big early tests.

Flash forward three weeks and it seems the Pac-12 might be in good shape after all.

The Ducks and Utes bounced back with big wins and the top of the conference looks strong, with four teams in the top 15 for the first time since 2016.

It’s still early, but the Pac-12 is putting itself in position to get a team through to the CFP for the first time since Washington in 2016-17.

A look at how the top of the Pac-12 is stacking up headed into the first weekend of October:

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

The No. 6 Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) seem to have quickly returned to glory in their first season under Lincoln Riley. The former Oklahoma coach brought quarterback Caleb Williams with him to Southern California and they have thrived through the first four games.

Williams has thrown for 1,054 yards and nine touchdowns, adding 100 yards and two more scores rushing. USC’s defense has been opportunistic, leading the nation with 11 interceptions while tied for the lead with 14 takeaways.

The Trojans survived a scare against scrappy Oregon State over the weekend to start 4-0 for the first time since 2012. USC has to play at Utah on Oct. 15, but avoids Washington and Oregon this season.

UTAH

The 12th-ranked Utes opened the season with a tough road loss at The Swamp in Florida, but have won three straight lopsided games.

Outside of a costly interception late against the Gators, quarterback Cam Rising has been sharp, throwing for 954 yards and 10 TDs. Utah (3-1, 1-0) has a physical defense and is third in the FBS, allowing 132.8 yards passing per game.

The Utes also have a veteran team that won the Pac-12 championship last season. The bad news: tight end Brant Kuithe, their leading receiver, is out for the season with a knee injury.

Utah plays Oregon State this weekend and has tough games against USC and Oregon still on the schedule.

OREGON

The Ducks’ playoff chances took an immediate hit with a 49-3 loss to reigning national champion Georgia in their opener.

No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0) bounced back with a decisive win over a good BYU team and outlasted previously undefeated Washington State 44-41 last week.

The Ducks were no match for the Bulldogs in any aspect – few teams are – but have averaged 51.6 points the past three games. Oregon’s biggest weakness is its pass defense. The Ducks are allowing 72.5% of passes to be completed, third worst in the country.

Oregon’s biggest tests left in the season will come in back to back games against Washington and Utah.

WASHINGTON

The Huskies have made a quick turnaround in their first season under coach Kalen DeBoer.

Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been superb now that he’s healthy, throwing for an FBS-best 1,388 yards and 12 TDs with one interception. No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0) picked up a solid home win against Michigan State and has 15 sacks this season, including eight against Stanford last week.

The Huskies play their first road game at undefeated UCLA on Saturday and have to face Oregon on Nov. 12.

UCLA

After winning at Colorado for the first time since 2014 last Saturday, the Bruins (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) have their longest winning streak since winning the first eight games in 2005.

UCLA had a hard time getting past South Alabama and opened its Pac-12 schedule with a win against the struggling Buffaloes.

The Bruins will find out how good they are over the next three weeks, a brutal stretch that includes home games against Washington and Utah before heading to Eugene to play the Ducks on Oct. 22.

CFP expansion talks head toward October after 7-hour meeting

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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ROSEMONT, Ill. — The conference commissioners who manage the College Football Playoff met for almost seven hours Tuesday to work on expanding the postseason system from four to 12 teams as soon as the 2024 season.

There is still much work to be done.

“We will not wrap up this week,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said.

The CFP management committee, comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director, is scheduled to convene again at the Big Ten offices for a few hours Wednesday morning. They are set to meet again in person in Dallas on Oct. 20.

“That’ll be important,” Hancock said.

Expansion talks were revived by the university presidents and chancellors who oversee the College Football Playoff last month.

By adopting a 12-team plan that had been on the table since the spring of 2021, the presidents pushed the commissioners to try to implement a new format before the end of the CFP’s current contract with ESPN. That deal ends after the 2025 season.

Expanding from four to 12 in 2024 and ’25 will require rescheduling semifinals and championship games that already have dates and sites set, plus adding four new first-round games in mid-December to be played on campus sites.

Squeezing it all into about a month and working around the NFL for television will be challenging.

Hancock said the idea of moving up the start of the college football season to the week before Labor Day to create more room at the end for the playoff has been discussed, but more for beyond the 2025 season.

“I think most people view that as a future item. As long-term item and not an immediacy item,” Hancock said. “Remember, there’s so many details.”

Hancock said CFP officials have spoken to bowl partners and hosts cities that are set to hold semifinals and championship games after the 2024 and ’25 seasons, but they have not been presented definitive new dates.

Atlanta already has been chosen as the host city for the championship game to be played following the 2024 season, on Jan. 6, 2025. The game would have to be pushed back about two weeks if the playoff grows from four teams to 12.

“(Atlanta organizers) have some work to do because of other businesses in the community,” Hancock said. “Other meeting-type business, hotel business and Convention Center business there. They’ve been great to work with.”