KNOXVILLE — When the late and legendary Johnny Majors was guiding Pittsburgh to college football's 1976 national championship and later leading Tennessee to three Southeastern Conference titles, he would often exclaim: "Attack! Attack! Attack! Always attack!"
The Volunteers took that a little too far during Saturday afternoon's Johnny Majors Classic inside Neyland Stadium, committing 13 penalties for 134 yards in a 41-34 loss to the Panthers. The number of flags and their resulting yardage were the most for Tennessee since a win over Vanderbilt in 2000.
"That surprised me, and it's not who we've been," Tennessee first-year coach Josh Heupel said. "We took our helmet off in celebration early and changed the field position a little bit. We show those things that happen across the country in our Monday meeting, but we're near the goal line in front of our student section and have a couple of things transpire where we end up kicking a field goal.
"There are a bunch of things we need to be better at. We talked before the game about competitive composure, but obviously we were not good in those moments. Occasionally there is going to be a penalty from snap to whistle, and the things that you can control you just can't do. You add up all those things, and there were a lot of opportunities to change the scoreboard."
Tennessee's flags started harmlessly enough with a holding call on right guard Javontez Spraggins and a false start on left guard Ollie Lane, but a pass interference call on safety Trevon Flowers late in the first quarter began an absolute rash of mistakes. A 54-yard run by quarterback Joe Milton to the Pitt 5 with Tennessee leading 10-7 early in the second quarter was followed by a false start on left tackle Darnell Wright, an unnecessary roughness penalty on right tackle Cade Mays and offensive pass interference on receiver Cedric Tillman.
So a first-and-goal at Pitt's 5 resulted in a fourth-and-goal from the 31, with Chase McGrath connecting on a 48-yard field goal for a 13-7 lead.
"Those are drive killers," said Tennessee junior tight end Jacob Warren, who had five catches for 55 yards and a touchdown. "We marched the ball down the field and had penalties back to back to back. Those things are tough to bounce back from, and it's stuff we've obviously got to clean up."
Said Vols safety Theo Jackson: "I didn't know we had that many yards. That's not like us at all. We've really got to lock in and be more focused."
An announced crowd of 82,203 attended Pittsburgh's third win over Tennessee in as many tries and the first series meeting since 1983, with the audience less than the 84,314 who attended the Vols' opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 2.
Pittsburgh (2-0) had a 397-394 edge in total yardage, with fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Pickett completing 24 of 36 attempts for 285 yards and two touchdowns. Joe Milton and Hendon Hooker combined on 22-of-33 passing for 238 yards for the Vols.
Tennessee outgained Pitt 136-96 on the ground, but while the Panthers committed no turnovers, the Vols lost two fumbles and were intercepted once. Pitt was penalized nine times for 76 yards.
"I told the players in the locker room that obviously I'm disappointed with the outcome," Heupel said. "There were a ton of things that had an opportunity to change the football game, from the communication side to turnovers to chances in the red zone that you don't take advantage of. All those things are true.
"I also told them that this defines today, but it doesn't define the journey that this football team is on."
Despite the penalties and the deficit in turnover ratio, the Vols were poised to forge a 41-41 tie midway through the fourth quarter when Hooker carried the ball inside Pitt's 3-yard line on third down. Hooker did not get a favorable spot, resulting in fourth-and-inches, and Jaylen Wright was thrown for a loss after getting the carry from Hooker, who was lined up in shotgun formation.
Heupel was asked about performing short-yardage plays out of the shotgun.
"That's not all that we do," Heupel said. "There are things that we've done from under center. I felt like we had a good plan, but we did not execute in that moment for sure."
The Vols got the ball back after forcing a three-and-out series, but Hooker was intercepted by safety Brandon Hill at the Pitt 17 with 4:52 remaining. The Panthers were then able to run out the clock.
Tennessee hosts Tennessee Tech next Saturday before visiting Florida on Sept. 25 to begin Southeastern Conference play.
"We've got to grow up fast," Heupel said. "We've got good teams on the schedule, and we're capable of being a whole lot better than we were today. We've got to take ownership of that individually and collectively as a team."