Welp, we’re closing in on another
day of pain game day for the Clemson Tigers football team (4-2, 3-1 in ACC). I.e., another day of watching an excellent defense try to bail out a fledgling offense. The challenge grows this time, with the Tigers heading to western Pennsylvania to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-1, 2-0 in ACC).
Jim Hammett, from Panther-Lair.com, was kind enough to answer some questions for us ahead of the game on Saturday. You can give Jim a Twitter follow here.
STS: Despite winning the Coastal Division in 2018, that Pitt team was only 7-5 overall during the regular season. This seems to be the best team head coach Pat Narduzzi has had at Pitt. How would you grade his tenure at Pitt so far? And what do you think is the realistic height this program could reach under his leadership?
Hammett: I think Pat Narduzzi’s job has been solid, yet unspectacular at Pitt. Aside from that Coastal Championship in 2018, there were three 8-win seasons mixed in there, and that 2016 team that beat Clemson and Penn State was probably his best team at Pitt, perhaps until this season. We’re still waiting to see what happens with the rest of this season. Narduzzi came to Pitt at a time when the program needed stability after a run of coaches from Dave Wannstedt to Todd Graham to Paul Chryst in a short amount of time. It has taken some time to build, but there are definitely good signs around the program under Narduzzi’s leadership.
Pitt signed its first top-25 recruiting class in over a decade in 2021. The team had six players drafted in the 2021 Draft, the most in a single year since 2004. The program received a $20-million donation from an alumnus prior to the start of this season. Pitt rarely has players transfer out, and he has built a strong culture within his program. The one thing that has seemingly been missing is the big breakthrough type season, and through six games this year, the 2021 Panthers might be just that.
The way college football is structured, it will be hard for Pitt to ever brush shoulders with the Clemsons and Ohio States of the world, but I think he could get this program to being a consistent threat to win the Coastal annually, and have that occasional big 10-11 win-type season every few years.
STS: Kenny Pickett sure has come a long way from the freshman quarterback who threw for a total of eight (8) passing yards against Clemson in the 2018 ACC championship game. He has grown into a star and might even have a future in the NFL. From your perspective, what makes him so effective?
Hammett: Kenny Pickett’s ascent through his career has been interesting to watch. He is in his fifth year at Pitt, and he’s really transformed himself in a lot of ways. The team burned his redshirt back in 2017, but in his first career start he upset No. 2 Miami to end the year. He then took over in 2018 as a full-time starter, and was mostly a game manager, as Pitt had two 1,000-yard running backs. Mark Whipple took over as offensive coordinator in 2019, and challenged him to be more of a thrower. There were glimpses in 2019 and 2020, but he’s taken it to a new level in 2021.
Pickett is an effective player for a variety of reasons. He is a good leader, and seems to make players around him better. On the field, he’s not a runner, but his mobility helps him keep plays alive, and this year he just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, with 21 touchdowns to just one interception. He’s a smart player who is playing with a lot of confidence, which is what you would expect from a fifth-year senior.
STS: The Panthers are averaging a whopping 48.3 points per game this season. What are the fundamentals of their scheme, and who are some players we should keep an eye on besides Pickett? Lastly, how do you see this very good (albeit banged up) Clemson defense matching up against them?
Hammett: Pitt is definitely more geared towards the pass than run, but the offense gives multiple looks throughout the game. You’ll see a lot of shotgun, but the team can go under center as well. They can play with tempo, but last week when they were sitting on a three-touchdown lead against Virginia Tech, they could also sit on the ball. Pitt had an 11-minute fourth quarter drive against the Hokies.
The strength of the team is Kenny Pickett throwing. He has some pretty good targets to throw the ball to as well. The main guy to watch is sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison. He has nine touchdowns this season, and Pitt likes to line him up all over the field. Jared Wayne is another wide receiver who can make plays, and is coming off a big game last week. Keep an eye on tight end Lucas Krull; at 6’6” he is a nice red-zone option for Pickett.
The running game played well last week, but has been suspect in recent seasons. Sophomore Israel ‘Izzy’ Abanikanda rushed for a career-high 140 yards last week and is a player the Pitt coaches are high on, and he’s starting to emerge a bit.
Clemson is arguably the best defense in the country, and will certainly be Pitt’s toughest challenge to date. It’s the third-highest scoring offense in the country going up against the second-best scoring defense in college football. It is strength on strength, so I think both groups will have success against each other throughout the game in a bit of a chess match.
STS: On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s anemic offense has been well-documented. They’ve failed to hit the 20-point mark in regulation against an FBS opponent, which is staggering. It’s truly been very difficult to watch them. What can this unit expect to see schematically from the Panthers?
Hammett: Pitt runs the same defense Pat Narduzzi ran as the long-time defensive coordinator at Michigan State for many years. It is not an exotic scheme by nature, and truthfully they dare teams to beat you by throwing the ball. Pitt runs a 4-3 base defense, and they will sell out to stop the run. Pitt is generally one of the best teams in the country against the run year after year. They also like to bring pressure, as Pitt has been among the nation’s leaders in sacks for three years now.
In short, this is an aggressive defense that likes to pressure the quarterback and stop the run. So obviously that can leave them vulnerable on the back end, with cornerbacks often being left on islands. If Pitt gets home and pressures the quarterback, then this can be a really good defense. On the flip side, good quarterbacks can make them pay with deep passes.
STS: As a quick aside: Pitt has one loss this year, which was a 44-41 home defeat against Western Michigan. Simply put, how did that happen?
Hammett: Western Michigan definitely exposed some weaknesses in that Pitt defense. They employed some RPOs, quick slants, and took some deep shots, and it worked. The Pitt offense played well enough to win, but the defense couldn’t get the big stops it needed.
As to what really happened? Who really knows. Did they get too excited after beating Tennessee on the road? Maybe. There was a players-only meeting following the loss, and obviously the team has been rolling ever since. So was it overconfidence or lack of respect for Western Michigan? Probably a combination of both. The ship seems righted since that loss.
STS: OK, prediction time. For the first time in forever (maybe since playing Florida State in 2014?), Clemson enters a conference game as an underdog, with Pittsburgh favored by 3 points. The Panthers are soaring while the Tigers are struggling in every FBS game they play. How do you see this one playing out? Who do you see winning this game, and what’s your final score prediction?
Hammett: I don’t think this game is going to be very high-scoring, because I don’t see either offense getting the better of the defense they are facing throughout the game. Clemson is struggling a lot on offense, and Pitt is starting to figure some things out on that side of the ball. So I think there is an advantage for Pitt. Clemson’s defense is obviously loaded, but I still trust that Pitt’s offense will make enough big plays to win the game. The hype and atmosphere around the Pitt program is pretty high right now, so I do think the crowd will be a factor, which is not a given for most Pitt home games.
I’m thinking something like Pitt, 27-17.
A big thank-you to Jim for participating in this Q&A. For the record, I too am predicting a Clemson loss, by a score of 27-14. So Jim and I are on the same page, sadly. Clemson fans are down bad.