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Tennessee football's comeback bid falls agonizingly short to Pittsburgh with Hendon Hooker at QB

Hendon Hooker replaced Joe Milton at quarterback, but he was unable to push Tennessee football past Pittsburgh in a nonconference game Saturday.

Tennessee football suffered critical injuries and a quarterback change in coach Josh Heupel’s first loss, falling 41-34 to Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Starting quarterback Joe Milton, a Michigan transfer, left the game with an injury just before halftime. Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker replaced him, but he couldn’t complete a Vols comeback.

UT (1-1) squandered early momentum and a 10-0 lead. And it failed to convert on fourth-and-1 play on the 3 in the fourth quarter to lose the first Johnny Majors Classic — which celebrates the coach at the helm of both programs for a combined 24 years.

Pitt (2-0), an ACC member, picked up a big road win amid a crowd of 82,203 at Neyland Stadium. Here are five observations from the Vols’ loss:

Hendon Hooker leads rally, makes late error
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker (5) runs the ball down the field as Pittsburgh linebacker Cam Bright (38) chases during a game against Pittsburgh at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

Hooker was 15-of-21 passing for 189 yards and two TDs, including an 8-yard strike to former Farragut standout Jacob Warren. He also tossed a 44-yard TD pass to Jimmy Calloway and scrambled for a key 23-yard run that led to a score.

Hooker guided UT on three touchdown drives in the second half of 68, 63 and 61 yards to cut Pitt's lead to 41-34 early in the fourth quarter. 

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But Hooker also lost a fumble and tossed an interception in Pitt territory with 4:52 remaining and UT vying for a tying TD drive.

Offense bitten by injury bug

Milton, running back Jabari Small and wide receiver Jalin Hyatt left the game due to injuries. Center Cooper Mays missed the game because of an ankle injury suffered in UT’s win over Bowling Green a week earlier. And running back Tiyon Evans missed the game for unspecified reasons.

Small and Evans had both rushed for more than 100 yards in the Bowling Green game. They were replaced by freshman Jaylen Wright against Pitt.

Milton suffered an apparent left leg injury in the second quarter with Pitt leading 14-13. Pitt defensive lineman Keyshon Camp sacked Milton, who fumbled and got up slowly.

A few minutes later, Milton limped to the locker room. He jogged onto the field after halftime but did not return to the lineup.

Picked apart by Kenny Pickett

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, a fifth-year senior, was poised in completing critical passes and finishing key runs. He led the Panthers back from a 10-0 deficit with 27 points in the second quarter on five consecutive scoring drives.

Pickett was 24-of-36 passing for 285 yards and two TDs. On a key drive in the third quarter, he converted a fourth-and-2 with a 5-yard scramble and scored on a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-goal play.

Joe Milton still overthrowing deep passes 

Before Milton’s injury, he overthrew deep passes on prime scoring opportunities that would’ve earned the lead for UT.

Milton has struggled to throw deep passes with touch throughout his career, from high school to Michigan and now UT. The problem was glaring in his second start for the Vols. 

In the first quarter, Milton tossed six deep passes, and only one of them was on target. That 56-yard pass to Hyatt was broken up in the end zone and negated by a UT holding penalty. 

The other five passes sailed past their intended targets — 3 yards past JaVonta Payton, 2 yards past Calloway, a couple feet beyond a diving Walker Merrill and out of Ramel Keyton’s reach in the back of the end zone.

But the most obvious was a pass 2 yards too far to an uncovered Cedric Tillman on what would’ve been a 39-yard walk-in touchdown. After that incompletion, Milton slapped himself on the helmet in frustration. Thousands of UT fans in Neyland Stadium reacted similarly.

Blocked punt started Vols on the right foot
 Tennessee defensive back Christian Charles (14) celebrates after a play with Tennessee linebacker Nick Humphrey (31) during a game against Pittsburgh at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.

UT grabbed momentum on the fourth play from scrimmage when Christian Charles burst through the Pitt line unblocked to bat down a punt. Pitt recovered the ball at the 2, giving the Vols a chance for an easy quick score.

On the next play, Small plunged in for a 2-yard TD run.

It was UT’s first blocked punt since Daniel Bituli against South Carolina on Oct. 26, 2019. And for Charles, a freshman defensive back from Gainesville, Georgia, it was the first highlight of his career.

In his debut against Bowling Green, Charles played 26 snaps, including 21 on special teams, according to Pro Football Focus. But he made a big impact on the first play of his second game.

Reach Adam Sparks at adam.sparks@knoxnews.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.

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