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Game 7 Preview: Clemson Travels to Face Favored Pittsburgh

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Underdog Time in the ACC? That’s whack!

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

Let’s face it folks: the world has been pretty bonkers since COVID-19 first reared its ugly head. Since then we’ve had a lot of weirdness, and this year’s Clemson Tigers fit right in. Clemson has dominated the ACC over the previous six seasons to a degree seen only in 1990s Florida State. This year was supposed to be more of the same.

Clemson had another 5-star QB to replace the last 5-star QB and a WR corps which apparently have Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi drooling. However, the reality is that Clemson has finally run into a season where it simply hasn’t reloaded after losing key production from the previous year. Now Clemson is a road underdog in an ACC game for the first time since going to face then #1 Florida State in Tallahassee in 2014. Clemson was also somehow an underdog to Louisville in 2016 at home before winning that epic battle. That was a while ago, to say the least.

Last week’s Syracuse game reinforced my opinion on the REAL problem with the Clemson offense: WR play. DJU isn’t going to be the surgeon that Trevor Lawrence was, at least not this year, but he certainly has done enough in my eyes the last two weeks to deliver IF the guys on the perimeter were anywhere close to doing what they are capable of.

We did see some flashes, namely Ngata and Ross both producing “You got Moss’d” moments, but the drops and horrible perimeter blocking continue to cause this offense serious problems. It is hard to explain Ngata playing 66 snaps and only producing 1 catch. Ajou Ajou had one egregious missed block and produced just 2 catches on his 62 snaps.

Now, there were 34 attempts from DJ so not every snap was a catching opportunity, but Clemson has to get more out of the X position than that. Ross’s drop over the middle derailed a drive and would have been a huge gain. At this point, none of this group is approaching what Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell put together last season, and neither of those guys are the prototype X man for our offense.

I give the OL a bit of a mulligan considering the staff prepared all week for Rayburn to be at center and, as I predicted in my game preview last week, Bockhorst moving to LG as Putnam returned to play RG. Rayburn got popped for COVID at the 11th hour and the staff was in scramble mode.

Mason Trotter got the start despite having extremely limited practice due to his broken hand. He did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. That one terrible snap was the worst part, and he got owned on a few plays by the 0-tech for Syracuse, but he did enough. Putnam played like he had missed time and was rusty. He has shown he can be much better so I’m hoping a week of preparation with Trotter getting those reps with that first unit will pay off this week. They will need as much preparation as possible because Pittsburgh is all about havoc on defense.

Clemson offense vs. Pitt defense: There really isn’t any big secret to dealing with the Pitt defense since Narduzzi came to town. They are going to come after whomever they play with 1 gap aggression while being in cover 4, cover 1, and cover 0 the vast majority of the time. Clemson has historically lit the Pitt defenses up mostly because of winning on the outside vs. the Pitt corners left on islands. If you can hit the big fades consistently, you can get them. You can also pop some big runs if you fit it right like we saw Travis Etienne do to them to start the 2018 ACC championship game, but they will throw numbers at our running game more than anyone we have seen to this point.

To be honest, Clemson hasn’t shown anything to make you scared to lock up on the outside to see if our WR can beat somebody 1 on 1. I don’t expect Pitt to drop 8 or play cloud like we saw GT and NCSU do. They will work to put this game in DJ’s hands and see if he can deliver. Now, we saw BC and ND do this last season when DJ played and he delivered big time, but that was when he had 2 reliable targets on the outside who were winning matchups routinely. Clemson desperately needs Ngata, Ross, and hopefully someone else to deliver more than just once every now and then. If Narduzzi was willing to go man up on Mike Williams and Tee Higgins in the past, he will certainly do it vs. this year’s crew.

This will be a different kind of challenge for the Clemson OL than many of these previous games. Pitt will run mostly four-down looks just like Boston College did. The good news there is Clemson’s OL played its best game vs. BC and seems more comfortable with their targets and double teams vs. that type of front. Pitt is a lot like Clemson has traditionally been defensively in that they want to create a ton of TFL and sacks and are willing to take risks to make that happen. The major difference is Clemson has had a better overall quality of secondary comparatively and has been harder to exploit with the perimeter passing game.

Clemson has had to play all the best defenses in the ACC as well as the #1 defense in the nation so far. NCSU, Syracuse, and BC all rank in the top 5 in total defense in the ACC. The worst defense was GT’s which is in the middle of the pack at 8th; Pitt is currently right behind the Tigers in 4th. You have to think that Clemson is at least battle-tested, though we continue to wait for clean execution.

The Tigers even broke out their freeze, throwback TE screen play vs. Syracuse which has worked for huge plays in the past, but unfortunately, the one guy who should have sprung it totally whiffed his blocking assignment, and the play was blown up. Until Clemson can “make the layups” as Dabo says, we are going to be stuck with the sputtering offense we have seen to date.

Clemson will have more pressure to score points in this game than in any matchup so far. Pitt has the best QB in the ACC and the best WR play as well. The chances of keeping them under 20, even with a very good defense like Clemson has, are not very strong barring turnovers. Clemson’s offense will have to find a way to score, especially in the early parts of the game, and force Pitt to play catch up. If Clemson finds itself having to play catch up, I fear we will see a bad loss on our hands.

Clemson is hopefully going to have more guys available for this one on offense. There is a chance Will Shipley will be able to play. Maybe Frank Ladson finally can go and offer Clemson some legit vertical speed, which has been sorely lacking this season on the outside. The Tigers simply have to be a lot more explosive than they have been to beat this Pitt defense and win this game.

Clemson defense vs. Pitt offense: I vividly recall preparing my game preview for the 2018 ACC title game with Pittsburgh. I remember believing the Tigers would feast on then-freshman Kenny Pickett, who didn’t scare me in the least. All that proved true, of course, but now Pickett has evolved into a clear NFL prospect and, in my opinion, easily the best quarterback in the ACC.

Clemson hasn’t been challenged by a quarterback like this in a while. Guys like Tua and Justin Fields were tremendous for what they did well, but I wouldn’t say either was as complete a QB as Pickett is now. They had more skill around them than Pickett, but the Pitt skill is nothing to sneeze at this year either.

Clemson has played valiantly on defense all season long. Although the Tigers have not produced the volume of flashy destruction we are accustomed to seeing a Brent Venables defense create, they have done what matters most and kept folks from scoring touchdowns. They have allowed Clemson to win or nearly win every contest this season despite an offense which even the 2010 unit can say they were better than. They will have to answer the bell once again and keep this game under the 30s at the minimum.

Andrew Booth and Fred Davis are reportedly good to go after practicing this week, which is excellent news indeed. Clemson will need all hands on deck on the outside to help control an explosive and efficient Pitt passing attack currently putting up 358 yards a game with over 70% completions and 22 touchdowns to just 1 interception. Those, my friends, are Trevor Lawrence numbers coming from the Panthers this season.

I don’t care how good your defense is, if the QB and WRs are locked in, you are going to have issues if you don’t disrupt the QB with pressure. This is what we saw with Tajh Boyd against LSU’s defense in 2012 and Deshaun and Trevor lighting up elite Alabama units in the playoffs. Pitt is going to make some plays and they are going to score some points. The key will be holding them at bay like Virginia Tech did last week while the offense (hopefully) can produce a decent lead.

Pitt is running the ball better than they have been since Mark Whipple took over as their offensive coordinator. It is certainly easier to run when teams are super worried about your passing attack, but Pitt will quickly abandon the run if they get behind. That is what Clemson needs to do so it can unleash its pass rush in a way we haven’t really been able to enjoy this season, which hopefully will fluster Pickett and create some turnover opportunities. Pickett is athletic enough to make plays on the scramble, and we saw Syracuse hurt the Tigers several times on key third and fourth down situations last week by allowing Shrader to escape the pocket to his right.

Pitt is far more dangerous at WR than the Orange. NCSU’s big WR hurt Clemson with some chunk plays in Raleigh. Pitt’s corps isn’t as big physically as NCSU’s but Jordan Addison is faster and a more polished route runner. It will be interesting to see if Brent Venables plays Addison straight up or breaks out his special treatment like he did when he put Mackensie Alexander on guys like Will Fuller of Notre Dame and Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma no matter where they lined up. My guess is he will trust either Goodrich or Booth to handle that matchup, but we will see how any slot alignment from Addison affects things.

I expect we will see a lot of this year’s Dime of Doom variations. It unfortunately means we probably won’t see a lot of snaps for LaVonta Bentley. I say this because Bentley is producing TFL’s at an extremely high rate compared to the other LBs, with 4 already on just 138 snaps. Bentley is a lot more effective vs. the run than dropping into coverage, which is probably going to be called on a good bit this week.

This is a huge game for Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas to make a big impact. I painfully remember how an elite 2012 Clemson offense was largely derailed against U of SC thanks to not being able to handle Clowney off the edge. If Clemson wins this game, I’d be willing to bet Thomas and/or Murphy are big factors. This is especially true on third and potentially fourth-down attempts. Syracuse had 7 third or fourth down conversions with one of those going for a huge TD pass. Clemson has to shut Pitt down in similar situations and not give Pickett extra opportunities.

Special Teams: Hey! Clemson broke out a fake punt last week! It was a huge play as well considering how points were at a premium. Hats off to that throw and catch because Syracuse was in punt safe with their defense out there to guard against a fake. I joked at the time that Davis Allen made a better play for Spiers than he or the other skill guys will make for DJ. B.T. Potter nailed his only attempt and it ended up being the game winner. Thankfully we saw Syracuse’s kicker fail to tie the game on the other side. \The Tigers have absolutely needed this phase to be solid to help win games this season, and it is possible that another special play in this area will be needed Saturday in Pittsburgh.

Overall: I can’t remember the last time I picked Clemson to lose a game in my previews. Even when I was wrong, like last year against Ohio State, I had plenty of evidence out there to make me believe the Tigers were going to win.

However, all the evidence this season points to Pittsburgh simply being the better team right now. Maybe our offense will explode beyond anyone’s expectations the way we saw Ohio State’s offense explode on our defense in the Sugar Bowl after being largely controlled by a less athletic Northwestern team just a few weeks prior. Maybe this defense will make some game changing plays via turnovers. However, until I see otherwise, any competent defense can keep this Tiger offense to 21 points or less and Pickett is too good to not top that number. Lord knows I want to talk about how wrong I was this time next week, but here it is.

Pitt 31-Clemson 21