Preview | Panthers ready to welcome the Vols to Acrisure for second Johnny Majors Classic


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Redshirt senior offensive lineman Marcus Minor (55) carries the U.S. flag into Acrisure Stadium before the Pitt vs. WVU football game Thursday night.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

The second edition of the Johnny Majors Classic will serve as a good measuring stick for the Panthers following a hard-fought victory over West Virginia last week. 

The No. 17 Pitt Panthers will have their hands full for the second straight week as the No. 24 Volunteers jumped into the AP Top 25 after their 59-10 drubbing of Ball State. This will be the fourth time Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi have matched up against each other dating back to Heupel’s time at UCF. Both coaches are pretty familiar with one another, so this matchup boils down to which team can execute.

Here’s what to watch for Saturday.

Can Pitt patch up its run defense?

Pitt’s run defense was uncharacteristically bad last Thursday, giving up 190 yards on the ground to the Mountaineers.

That can’t happen again, especially against a potent Volunteers offense, who averaged 37.9 points per game last season. 

West Virginia played fast at various points in the game and it gave the Panthers fits, allowing 5.8 yards per carry. If Pitt doesn’t get its issues against the run solved quickly, they could be in for a repeat performance against the Vols, who like to play up-tempo. 

Tennessee had three different running backs — junior Jabari Small, sophomore Jaylen Wright and first-year Dylan Sampson — run for a touchdown last week. Small will get the starting nod after he rushed for a team leading 796 yards and nine touchdowns last season. 

Pitt’s issues against the run mainly stemmed from linebackers filling the wrong gap, allowing the Mountaineers to run clean through holes. Other times, it was just a case of bad tackling. Either way, if Pitt wants to win this game, the Panthers need more from their outside linebackers. 

Panthers starting linebackers — junior Bangally Kamara and senior Shayne Simon — showed flashes of their ability in week one, but they need to put together a more consistent performance against the Volunteers.

Otherwise, Pitt could be in for a repeat performance of last week. 

Will Pitt operate out of shotgun to open the game?

Pitt senior quarterback Kedon Slovis looked much more comfortable out of shotgun formation rather than being under center last week. 

On the Panthers game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter last week, Slovis went 5-5 for 73 yards and a touchdown. Every pass was out of the shotgun. In total, Slovis was 12-15 in the shotgun for just about 200 yards. 

Slovis also took five sacks out of the formation. That needs to be cleaned up, but in terms of moving the ball, it’s clear it’s where he looked the most effective.  

The entire game was a feeling out process for Slovis and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. Slovis was under center for much of the first half, and Pitt couldn’t find any sort of rhythm. But the Panthers may have found something late in Thursday’s game, with 18 of its final 20 snaps of the night coming out of the shotgun.

Slovis is at his best when things are simplified for him, and he showed that on Thursday. Going under center and playing off the run will still be an emphasis in Cignetti Jr.’s offense for the Panthers this year. But for Pitt to win this particular game, they are going to need Slovis to get in a rhythm early, especially considering Tennessee is likely to put up a lot of points.  

Pitt needs to abandon last week’s game plan, in which they tried to use their run game to set up their passing attack, and instead give Slovis the opportunity to get in a groove out of the gates. 

Will Bartholomew be utilized more?

Pitt sophomore tight end Gavin Bartholomew finished with just one reception last week.

Bartholomew — a Freshman All-American last season — needs to be utilized much more against Tennessee. There’s no excuse for him to have been targeted just one time against the Mountaineers for how good he is.

It’s strange because one of the things Cignetti is known for as a play caller is to maximize the skill sets of his tight ends. 

In Cignetti’s first tenure as the Panthers signal caller, he helped former Pitt tight end Dorin Dickerson catch 10 touchdown passes in 2009. 

As Boston College’s offensive coordinator in 2020, Hunter Long caught 57 passes and scored six touchdowns in Cignetti’s offense. 

Bartholomew came into the season expected to put up similar numbers. He still can, but week one was just such a mystery. Pitt needs to find ways to get him the ball much more often on Saturday. His presence can make things a lot easier for a quarterback in a new environment such as Slovis. 

Prediction: Tennessee wins 41-34

This game will be a shootout, but I think Tennessee is more well-equipped to win a game of that manner at this stage of the season. 

Senior Hendon Hooker is back at quarterback for the Vols after throwing for just shy of 3,000 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. Hooker will make Pitt’s secondary pay more than West Virginia did last week, and I think that will cause the Panthers defense to play on their heels a bit. 

The Vols’ tempo will play a big factor, and the issues stemming against the run will still continue. I don’t think it’ll be nearly as bad as it was last week, but working in two new starters at linebacker takes time, and asking for that much improvement in a week feels like a tall task. 

If this game was played later in the season, Pitt would have a better shot. But Tennessee will be too much for the Panthers in this one.