Well, it certainly has been the strangest year of my lifetime thanks to COVID-19. Things got wackier last weekend when Florida State’s medical staff pulled the plug on the Tigers and Seminoles playing the morning of the game. That has led to a firestorm of media attention around Coach Dabo Swinney’s irate reaction to how the situation was handled, and more importantly the insinuations of how the Clemson medical staff has been handling the protocols. We won’t dive back into that discussion here, but needless to say it will be very nice to just get back to playing some football after stewing on that loss to Notre Dame going on three weeks. The Tigers sit comfortably in the initial top 4 rankings for the CFP, and simply need to hold serve through Charlotte to punch another ticket to the playoffs. All the things we said we needed to see last week still hold true now, though Pittsburgh offers a much stronger defensive front and overall superior team to what FSU was going to roll out there last week. The Tigers will don the purple for Military Appreciation, and it will likely be the final trip down the Hill for many Tigers, including Amari Rodgers, Travis Etienne, and Trevor Lawrence.
Clemson offense vs. Pittsburgh defense: Pitt rolls in with the best rushing defense in the ACC. Clemson’s struggling run game has an excellent chance to show it can operate at a level we can have some confidence in when the championship phase begins. Last week should have been a “get right” week, but instead the team will have the much stiffer Panther defense to test the tweaks from the open date. Pitt is going to play that aggressive quarters defense with numbers ready to throw at the run game, hoping its corners can hold up outside while their pass rush goes to work. As usual, we have seen a lot of feast or famine from their defense over the season. They have had some dominating stretches, but have also been victimized by big plays in the passing game, most notably in their 1-score losses to Boston College and NCSU. Notre Dame’s run game only managed a little over 100 yards on them, but Ian Book and the Irish WR torched them for over 300 yards in a blowout win. The Panthers are coming off an impressive blowout win over Virginia Tech where they held the ACC’s top rushing offense to 156 yards. Make no mistake, the Pitt rushing defense is legitimate, and should Clemson find a way to success on the ground here it would be a huge boon to the forecast of the season.
It is much more likely that Trevor Lawrence will have to do most of the damage through the air, like his heir apparent had to do the previous two games. Clemson should be in better shape health wise after an additional week without a game, although Joseph Ngata has been shut down until further notice with surgery. Thankfully, Cornell Powell and Amari Rodgers have stayed healthy and have carried the load without Ngata and Frank Ladson being available. We will see how much the “game within the game” edge that Lawrence brings to the table translates to checks and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. As good as DJ Uiagalelei was in his two starts, there can be no question that he isn’t as advanced in his recognitions and command of the full offense as Lawrence. This doesn’t even account for the fact DJ was playing with a banged up shoulder, which led to trying to minimize his running opportunities.
The last time these two teams met, Travis Etienne exploded for a long TD run right out of the gate, putting Pitt on its heels and starting a blowout win in last year’s ACCCG. Narduzzi will be looking for the formula from 2016’s upset win in Death Valley, where Pitt stoned the Clemson running game and held on for dear life against nearly 600 yards passing from Deshaun Watson. The Tigers turned it over just enough for Pitt to escape by a point. The Panthers are without top safety Paris Ford who opted out, so things are a little easier to manage over the middle without Ford’s big hitting presence. Clemson needs to dominate on the outside and take care of the ball while hopefully finding some success with the running game along the way.
Clemson defense vs. Pittsburgh offense: I had zero concerns about what Kenny Pickett and this offense could do back in 2018, but Pickett has improved tremendously since that time and is a legitimate quarterback threat now. Clemson’s losses since 2014 have almost entirely featured a quarterback playing the game of his life or close to it. We saw Ian Book play above his head in South Bend. Nathan Peterman certainly did that in 2016. The Panthers have to hope Pickett can turn the trick this time around. The Panthers are absolutely terrible on offense without Pickett because their running game has been very poor. There is no James Connor lining up for the Panthers this year, so the Panthers are averaging just 110.3 yards a game and 3.2 a carry on the ground. Pickett threw it 52 times for 404 yards against the Hokies last time out.
This is a good test to see if Clemson can get its pass rush working better than against Notre Dame. The Tigers were forced to blitz a ton, and that backfired a bit when injuries mounted in the back and forced inexperienced safeties into the contest. The Tigers should be able to stuff the Panther run game with a lot more ease than with Notre Dame, so it will come down to winning those battles on the perimeter and making Pickett’s life miserable.
Special Teams: Not much to say here beyond what I said in the FSU preview. Clemson’s kickers are as good as you want to have. The protection problems seem to have been cleaned up. Just avoid disaster here. As always, we’d welcome an explosive return from Rodgers, Etienne, or someone else on kick return duty.
Overall: If this game is going to be a game, we will know it in the first quarter. Clemson’s tough games have always featured the opponent getting some early success. Pitt will have to play clean and not turn the ball over. If they do that, they have enough to make this interesting. Clemson just needs to play and to win, even if the style points don’t match up. It is hard to say how the team will look after such a long layoff and with so many moving parts due to injuries. You like that #16 is back in the saddle, and you know the team is chomping at the bit to play and to win. I think we still see limited success on the ground but the Tiger defense and Lawrence will be too much for Pitt to deal with.
Clemson 40-Pitt 21