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ACC Championship Preview: #2 Clemson Gets Pittsburgh in Charlotte

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2016 Revenge Time

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson
The Sheriff of the ACC
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The ACC Championship Game is quickly becoming the Clemson invitational as the Tigers make their 4th consecutive appearance in the game and 6th overall since the game’s inception in 2005. Meanwhile, the Coastal Division continues its revolving door of champions with Pittsburgh taking the honor this year for the first time since coming into the ACC.

Beating up on South Carolina is always sweet, although the defense got a big dose of sour last week with a terrible performance down the middle of the back seven. They will have a real chance to get the good vibes going by facing an offense which falls right into the wheelhouse of what the 2018 defense does best: stuff the run.

I was hoping Pitt would take care of Miami and enter this game ranked, but they promptly got dominated by the Canes defense and lost miserably. While it is a little difficult to get super fired up about facing a five-loss team in a conference title game, winning these things is always exciting and should never, EVER, be taken for granted. Heck, we spent 05-08 wondering if we’d ever even make it to this game while the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest got there. These are the glory days!

Clemson defense vs. Pitt offense: So, wow, like I could do a WTF Thursday post (if you remember those from a few summers back) just on the defense’s performance last week against USCjr. I had climbed aboard the “this is the best Clemson defense of the Venables era” train only to get shoved off while it was rolling 70 mph. The brightest side of what was a mind boggling display of poor fundamentals and too many attempts to make hero plays is that the team still won by 21, and now can get the humble pie shoved down its throat by the staff without nursing a loss.

I commented on several posts after the fact that the defense’s lapses were largely connected with focus issues. We saw this at Syracuse last year when the defense started off getting burned and never really got its act together the rest of that night. That defense rebounded into dominant form for the remainder of the season, including the playoff loss to Alabama when it held the Tide to season lows in yards, yards per play, etc. We can only hope this year’s defense will respond in much the same fashion now that it really, really counts.

As for Pitt, they are about as helter-skelter as you will see on offense. If they get that running game going, they can be flat out dominant like they were against Virginia Tech and Syracuse. However, when they can’t run the ball, they can look pathetic like they did last week in Miami or earlier against UCF. They are very much like Boston College in this fashion and should be a welcome sight to the Tiger defense. This is another game where Tanner Muse should shine his brightest, whereas games like Syracuse in 2017 and USCjr this year were not his best moments. Above all, the Tigers need K’von Wallace to regain his early season form because he has struggled mightily the past two weeks. Has Denzel Johnson grown? Absolutely, but I’m not sure he’s ready to be our first team free safety in January.

Pitt still features a lot of the bells and whistles of the Matt Canada system from 2016. It really isn’t all that dissimilar from the Rob Spence style of offense we saw in Clemson which also featured a lot of shifts, multi tight end sets, motions, etc. The difference is the Canada/Pitt style is more willing to attack deep off play action and relies less on bubble and tunnel screens. Those Spence offenses, and the Pitt offense, mask a lot of basic run concepts with the motions and such. The success their 2016 offense had in Death Valley required a career day from Peterman at QB, but the key was the ability to generate at least a moderate run game with James Conner which kept their play action alive and aided their pass protection.

This Pitt team isn’t as good at quarterback, although the running back position has two strong players in Ollison and Hall who are similar in makeup to Conner. They are actually the type of back which has given the Tiger defense more problems in recent history. It isn’t surprising the Gamecocks leaned more on their bigger back Denson vs. the smaller Dowdle last week. I expect Clemson to load up hard on the run game and force Kenny Pickett to win the game. The Panthers have lost their starting center and that looks to be a big blow considering how badly their OL performed against Miami last week without him.

The Panthers also like to use their most explosive player, Maurice Ffrench, with the jet sweeps and reverses. He is their equivalent to Jeff Smith from Boston College. The Tigers just need to be assignment sound and force Pickett to execute contested throws. He has yet to prove he can really carry the load without the run game clicking.

Clemson offense vs. Pitt defense: Pitt was able to get Clemson mostly one dimensional in 2016 with their aggressive quarters defense. Although Wayne Gallman ran for 3 short touchdowns, he was only able to muster 2 yards a carry and was stuffed on that critical fourth down to set up the last field goal. Clemson shredded the Pitt secondary for almost 600 yards passing, but the three interceptions Watson threw were just enough to keep Clemson from putting the Panthers away.

Last week would have been similarly scary had the Tiger offense gotten sloppy with the ball, but by the time Lyn-J Dixon fumbled, the team had a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter. Trevor Lawrence has work to do to reach the lofty mountain where Deshaun Watson resides, but at this point you can certainly say Lawrence takes better care of the football. The scrambles and checkdowns Lawrence mixed in with his usual array of laserbeams down the field are really the final stage of his movement into being unstoppable.

Oh, and the ACC player of the year isn’t even that quarterback. Travis Etienne got a full load of work last week and responded, as usual, with 150 yards and 2 touchdowns. Both Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice are looking fast and physical when they give #9 a rest. The Tigers showed some 2 back sets for the first time this year against USCjr, and that offers some exciting possibilities for the offense going forward. While this Pitt defense will likely try to eliminate the run and take their chances with Lawrence throwing on them, they are much less likely to be able to do it. This Clemson team is just stronger and deeper up front and on another level at running back from 2016 when Gallman was a one-man-show.

Special Teams: The Gamecocks weren’t able to get the game changing plays in this phase they were going to need to win last week. The Tigers were sound in the kicking game, save for the missed field goal from Greg Huegel at the end of the first half. The time is coming when Heugel is going to need to not miss so hopefully that was just a bad rep and not a sign of future struggles. Ffrench has two kick return touchdowns for Pitt this year so the Tigers need to be careful with him. Otherwise this phase shouldn’t be much of a factor barring craziness.

Overall: It is really amazing how much the first offensive drive the Tigers face seems to set the tone for the game. When the Tigers rarely give up a touchdown on the first drive, it has signaled a dogfight or shootout more often than not. When the Tigers stuff that first drive, or at least hold for a field goal, you can count on a strong day from the D. I cannot imagine it has been a fun week for the Clemson defense after that 600 yard performance from USCjr, and I fully expect them to redirect that discomfort onto the Pittsburgh offense.

Rack up that 4th straight ACC title and playoff bid!

Clemson 42-Pitt 9