I have found myself having to sit back and reflect on what has been an incredible run for the Clemson Tigers the last two seasons. Really, if you look back at the last two games of 2014, the Tigers have been unbelievable with the lone blemish coming to mighty Alabama in the Championship Game where the Tigers made all the critical mistakes to lose by one score. This is something to be celebrated and never taken for granted, and though I have quibbled about mistakes and lulls in play this year like most fans, I need only to recall the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s when the top 10 was a fantasy, let alone the top 2. These are the good old days and I hope they stay for a long, long time. Now the Tigers have a chance to clinch the ACC Atlantic for the fifth time in Dabo Swinney’s tenure (fourth outright). The Tigers can make a fourth ACC title game when Bowden couldn’t do it once (unlike Boston College and Wake Forest). A win Saturday books the ticket to Orlando! It is also time to honor a terrific senior class (and some awesome juniors). I am so glad I will be there to see some of the greatest Tigers in the history of the program take that trip down the hill one by one. They have put Clemson at the peak of the mountain with only one step left to take. Bravo.
Clemson offense vs. Pittsburgh defense: If you ever wondered what it might have looked like for the current Clemson offense to face the Reggie Herring defenses of the 1997-2001 era, this is the game for you. Coach Herring was all about bringing the house against the run, but usually the Tigers had at least one glaring leak in the secondary that good teams exploited with ease. His stubbornness was legendary and Clemson was the victim of some of the biggest games in ACC offensive history. Torry Holt, Peter Warrick, Korrin Robinson, Snoop Minnis, Kelly Campbell, Kerry Watkins, and Jerricho Cotchery are some of the names of guys who lit up the Tiger secondary during that stretch. This was often because a guy like Peter Ford or Darrell Crutchfield or Kevin Johnson was asked to play man coverage. Mismatch city. This year’s Pitt Panther squad has similarly hung its secondary out to dry in an effort to load the box against the run. However, they have run up on teams equipped to burn them repeatedly with the pass, such as Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, Miami, and North Carolina. Deshaun Watson and #WRU has to be licking their chops for this game because it is extremely unlikely Pitt will alter what they do at this point. Narduzzi is calling defenses like he has Trae Waynes type corners like he had at Michigan State. Whether it is man or quarters coverage, they are usually up tight in press challenging the opposition to beat them over the top. Watson looked dynamite on the deep throws last week before getting hurt, and he will have some ample opportunities to continue that this week.
Pitt has been good against the run and they will have to hope that continues against the Tigers. Clemson isn’t going to just throw it 50 times by default. They will attempt to establish the run as always and see if Gallman and Watson can soften up the defense and create makeable third downs. However, it will be tempting to check out of any run call when you see that Pitt has given up 500 yards + passing to Mason Rudolph, 400+ passing to Mitch Trubisky and Jarod Evans, and 300+ passing to Todd McSorley and Brad Kaaya. As long as Clemson can keep stud DL Ejuan Price off of Watson, he should easily crack 300 yards in the air. This is the mismatch Clemson must exploit to avoid any notions of an upset.
Clemson defense vs. Pitt offense: I thought the defense/offense matchup last week was intriguing, but Brent’s crew punished the Orange into the fetal position and pitched a shutout. If Clemson can dominate the Panther offense, Tiger fans should feel as confident as they can feel about this defense being able to carry the Tigers to a championship. The Panthers have put up at least 28 points in every game this year, so the first goal clearly is to break that trend. Some of that has been helped by the special teams play, namely kick return, but the Panthers are a tricky cat to corral on offense. It all starts with the traditional I formation power run game with James Connor, but there is a lot of Ralph Friedgen type stuff with this offense. Friedgen’s best offenses with GT and Maryland had every formation from the wishbone to empty. They had an NFL type timing passing game along with option type runs. This Pitt team reminds me of that type of attack and it is effective. Clemson, as usual, will first look to stuff the run game and get the Panthers off schedule. Though Pitt’s numbers are good on offense, they haven’t really played a defense on Clemson’s level this season. Virginia Tech is probably the closest thing they have seen but VT doesn’t have Clemson’s DL. Pitt must keep the Tigers off balance with Connor, Henderson, and some QB runs from Peterman and stay out of long yardage. I expect to see Pitt use a gameplan like NCST had, so the Tigers must be willing to get hands up to bat down quick throws (this was done much better vs. Syracuse). The Pitt OL, as Ryan pointed out earlier this week, is pretty strong. This is an excellent test for the Tigers up front and one I’m anxious to watch.
Special Teams: Well, the excellent kick coverage took a bit of a step back last week. Syracuse was able to pop a long return and was close to another. Pitt can make the Tigers pay with the nation’s leading kick returner Quadree Henderson in their stable. Hopefully we will see deeper kicks this week or more of Tanner Muse lighting guys up. As I said last week, upsets usually have a special teams play involved and Clemson has to avoid falling victim. The Clemson return game had a week off with the shutout.
Overall/Prediction: It is November and the Tigers can smell it. The first two months of the season seemed to be a holding pattern where the team stepped up if it had to, like against Louisville and FSU, but mostly tread water awaiting the stretch run. This team has been pointing towards Tampa from the last whistle in Arizona last year, and last week really felt like the team is ready for that run. This is all bad news for Pittsburgh who frankly need a C level effort from the Tigers to have a shot. Clemson played a clean game last week and needs to show it can put two of those together. I think the Pitt offense will have some success, there is too much data to say otherwise, but Watson and #WRU is going to treat them like they did UNC in 2014.
Clemson 51-Pitt 21