The Pittsburgh Panthers came into Death Valley with an offensive plan that exposed some weaknesses in the Clemson defense, executing an inside running game with shovel passes that kept catching the aggressive Tiger defense out of position. If you had told me that Pitt would come in and win a shootout, I wouldn’t have believed it, but that’s exactly what happened.
Pittsburgh’s first drive was a sign of things to come as they drove down the field and scored. Clemson responded with a good drive but Deshaun Watson was picked off in the end zone, leaving the Tigers down 7-0. The Tiger defense responded and got the Panthers off the field, giving the offense good field position. The offense took advantage of that field position with a good drive and Wayne Gallman scored on a 1-yard run.
Pitt’s offensive coaches clearly saw some weaknesses in the Tiger defense, and had good success with those shovel passes underneath. The Panthers executed a 75-yard drive and scored on a busted coverage by the Tiger defense to go up 14-7. The Tiger offense then responded with a good drive that was saved when Watson made a great, all-arm throw to Mike Williams to convert a 3rd and 12 . Gallman finished off the drive with another 1-yard touchdown run. The Tiger defense then held the Panthers on the ensuing drive. The Tigers then went down the field and scored on a 15-yard catch by Williams to go up 21-14.
Exposing another one of those weaknesses in the Tiger defense, the Panther offense burned Ben Bouleware on a 55-yard touchdown pass. The point after kick hit the upright and the Tigers remained in the lead at 21-20. As great a player as Bouleware is, his vulnerability in pass coverage is quite a liability for the Tigers. He simply doesn’t have the foot speed to cover tight ends and running backs, so why put him in that position? On the ensuing drive, the Tiger offense was driving down the field, but Watson threw a high pass to Deon Cain who couldn’t pull it in and the Panthers picked off the tipped pass.
The Panthers went down the field and scored on a nicely executed pass to their fullback in the back of the end zone. The Tigers responded with a 2-minute drill drive and scored when Artavis Scott pulled in a nice touch pass from Watson. The half ended with Clemson up 28-27. Would the Tiger defense be able to adjust in the second half?
The first Tiger drive ended in a punt and then the Tiger defense caused a fumble on the Pitt drive that was recovered by Dexter Lawrence. The Tigers responded with a good drive and a 27-yard touchdown catch by Cain. Then it seemed that the officials decided to start throwing some very questionable penalties on the Tigers. Cordrea Tankersley was called for a pass interference penalty, and Bouleware was called for a personal foul penalty for having the audacity to tackle a Pitt player. Pitt ended up scoring on yet another shovel pass.
The Tigers responded with a good drive, with the crowd booing the officials on every play. Christian Wilkins decided he had seen enough of the shovel pass on the ensuing Panther drive with a nice tackle for loss. For the next several possessions, the defense played well, but I could tell that the big guys were getting winded.
Later, the Tigers had a good drive going, and seemed about to score when Watson threw a horrible pass that was intercepted and would have been run back for a long touchdown had Mike Williams not exerted great hustle to chase down the Pitt defender. Another very questionable holding call allowed Pitt to keep their drive going and they scored to leave the Tigers up 42-40 after a missed 2-point conversion.
I honestly felt comfortable at this point, knowing that there was plenty of time for Tigers to drive down the field and at least get a field goal. The drive was going well, but the Panther defense tightened and the Tigers ended up in a 4th and short situation in Panther territory. I have said it before, and here it is again: if you expect to compete for a national title, you have to have an offense that can line up and reliably push the defense back in those situations. The Tigers, despite the jumbo package with Lawrence and Wilkins combining for 650+ pounds in the backfield, once again could not punch the defense in the teeth and put the game away. Again, I put this squarely on the shoulders of the offensive line. I do note that left tackle Mitch Hyatt limped off the field early in the game and I didn’t see him come back in, but this offensive line simply does not have the push in the running game that they need.
Pitt then took over, went down the field and kicked a field goal to win the game. It’s not the end of the Tigers’ playoff hopes, but they now have a much harder path to follow.
There will be much discussion about officiating, surprising defensive weaknesses, and the lack of a running game. As always, STS will have complete analysis of this loss in the coming days, so check back with us for that coverage and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.