STS: It has been a couple of years, but Clemson and Pitt are finally meeting in football. How do you feel the move to the ACC has gone for Pitt football?
DC: So far so good, I suppose. Pitt hasn't lit the world on fire, but with a relatively new head coach, the thought is that they are headed in the right direction. The Panthers are still looking for their first big statement win in the conference, though out of conference they beat Penn State this year, which was big. But the real benefit, obviously, is the financial stability. Being in the ACC just brings in so much more revenue for the athletics department and, as expected, has allowed Pitt to do some things like upgrade facilities and better fund non-revenue sports in addition to making some nice coaching hires.
Plus, in the ACC Coastal, Pitt is actually in a decent situation. They have work to do, as we've seen this year, to start winning Division titles. But with the primary competition being North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Miami, they're in a much better spot to reach a title game than some of the other teams in the Atlantic. Finally, it's also nice to play some old rivals like Virginia Tech, Miami, Syracuse, Boston College, and Louisville from the old Big East days. Fans would like to see them compete a little better than they have, but all things considered, the move has been great for the program.
STS: On offense, who are some of the key contributors that Clemson should keep an eye out on against Pitt?
DC: Running back James Conner is the big attraction, obviously. Conner was the 2014 ACC Player of the Year, and while he's not been that dominant this year, he's still a very good player. He has 13 total touchdowns and is on pace for about 1,000 yards this year. Wide receiver Jester Weah hasn't been terribly consistent in terms of making an impact, but he has big play ability and has three 50+ touchdown receptions. He's disappeared in some games (he had fewer than 20 yards per game in half of the team's contests this year), but can break free for a big play on occasion.
As an aside, wide receiver Quadree Henderson is another guy to watch. Most of his damage is done on kickoff returns, but he's another guy Pitt utilizes on sweep/run plays and has some big-play ability.
STS: Pitt made what I think was a rather smart hire in bringing in former Michigan State DC Pat Narduzzi. How does this Pitt defense look to attack Clemson's offense? And have they had success against HUNH offenses?
DC: The defense's strength, without question, is in its run defense. Pitt ranks 13th in the nation in run defense and really has done a great job there against some decent rushers. The glaring problem has been the pass defense. The secondary has kept them from breaking out, and has become a huge problem. The cornerbacks and safeties as a whole have not done a good job, and Pitt is usually good to give up at least 2-3 big pass plays per game. The Panthers rank near the bottom of the FBS in pass defense and I expect Clemson to convert at least a few big passes. Plus, because the run defense has been so good, offenses have really gone to the air against Pitt and it's been a disaster, to be honest.
One thing Pitt has done well at times is get the pass rush going and that has helped balance things out a little. Defensive end Ejuan Price has been one of the most disruptive pass rushers in the nation this year and has nine sacks on the season. The Panthers got next to no rush against Miami last week and it showed, as the Hurricanes beat them easily. If Pitt is able to get any kind of pass rush going on Saturday, it will help immensely. If not, the rout will be on.
STS: Pitt has one of the more dynamic kick returners in Quadree Henderson. How critical is his success going to be for Pitt this weekend?
CH: Henderson has been a key figure for the team, obviously. He leads the nation in return touchdowns with three and return yardage per game. Simply put, he's a playmaker that helps keep them in games and he's capable of being the difference. In addition to his three scores, he has a few more long returns and is a threat to return a kickoff for a touchdown every time he gets a chance. If Pitt is to have any chance on Saturday, I don't see them doing it without him being a factor.
What are some of the things on offense and defense that you'll be looking for to see Pitt have success on Saturday?
For Pitt to win, offensively, they'll need to control the ball and keep Clemson's offense off the field. Pitt will score points - they average close to 40 per game and score on just about anybody. Still, I don't think they can win a shootout with Clemson because of the pass defense and they're best bet will be to try to control the clock and score touchdowns instead of field goals. Defensively, it's all about the secondary. I simply don't see them keeping Clemson from big pass plays so they need to limit them there. Recently, head coach Pat Narduzzi also talked about them needing to create more turnovers. If Pitt is going to compete they need to force a turnover (and two wouldn't hurt).
Clemson has been more vulnerable in the lower-scoring games. If Pitt is to have a shot, while the offense is very good, it's got to be a game in the 20s or 30s. I just don't see them keeping up in a high-scoring game.
STS: What is the best way for Clemson to attack Pitt and see success on offense and defense?
CH: If I'm Clemson, I run the ball very little and air it out. The secondary is by far and away Pitt's biggest problem, so I look for them to take advantage there. Defensively, the Tigers need to contain Conner in the backfield. Quarterback Nathan Peterman is decent, but he isn't going to win many games with his arm. Despite the team putting up almost 40 points per game, he has yet to throw for more than 300 yards in a game in his career with the Panthers. If Clemson contains Conner and the running backs, that will make it very hard for Pitt to score as much as they're used to.
STS: Finally, what is your prediction for this one?
CH: I think Clemson could be ripe for an upset by somebody - I just don't think it's the Panthers. Clemson has had some close calls, but I expect them to be motivated here as they come down the home stretch for the Playoff. They also get the game at home, which helps even more. Pitt has pulled off some big upsets in recent years and I do think they will score points. But the secondary is too big of an issue for me and if Watson plays, I think Clemson wins something like 42-28.