PITTSBURGH — The Pitt Panthers will embark on a trip to Death Valley Saturday afternoon.
I’m not talking about the desert in California, rather the small ravine once overlooked by a cemetery that Clemson University built Memorial Stadium in. With a record attendance of over 86,000 and a tradition of being a rowdy bunch, the Tigers certainly have a good bit of home-field advantage.
The last time they lost at home was 2013 against Florida State. The last time Clemson lost to an unranked team at home was in 2008 against Georgia Tech in what was head coach Dabo Swinney’s first game.
This isn’t just any Clemson team, either. The only blemish for these Tigers over the last two seasons was a loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship. They’re ranked No. 2 in this year’s College Football Playoff rankings and quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
All told, this could be one of Pitt’s most difficult road trips in recent memory. That’s typically the case for those entering Death Valley and Swinney and his team knows it.
“I tell people all the time, if you’re a college football fan, whether you’re a Clemson fan or not, you really ought to come and see a game at Clemson,” Swinney said in his conference call Wednesday. “It’s just a beautiful game-day setting, the pageantry that surrounds this game and the campus and the tailgating, and just there’s a spirit here that is really special.”
“We’re expecting a crazy environment, which I like,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said Thursday. “I expect when we come out of the locker room for pregame that they’ll be booing us. For me, I get excited. I hope our kids get as excited as I do.”
To prepare for the raucous nature of Memorial Stadium, Pitt practiced indoors this week with crowd noise pumped in, even during individual drills. Have a listen:
While that drill was planned for members of the defensive line, the real place the crowd noise is a factor is for the pre-snap communication of the offense. Matt Canada’s scheme involves a lot of motion, shifts and other pre-snap adjustments that all need called out. When it doesn’t go right, there can be false start penalties or worse, which the team saw first hand against Virginia Tech two weeks ago.
“It’s going to be loud and our guys have to have great focus in the huddle,” Narduzzi said. “I think we got it louder in practice than it will be on game day and that’s really what our intentions were.”
Narduzzi said he’s coached in some “great environments over the years,” specifically mentioning Michigan and Iowa as places in the Big Ten and bowl games in hostile places against Texas Tech and Alabama as ones that stand out. But he was quick to mention that after the first play or so, the crowd shouldn’t be a factor. If it is, the Panthers have bigger problems.
One reason to suggest that it won’t be is that Pitt shouldn’t be overwhelmed by Clemson on the field. Despite a three-touchdown point spread, Pitt has faced several good teams at home and on the road. Of the current College Football Playoff ranking, Pitt has already played four of the top 17 teams in the nation, with two of those games coming on the road.
“We’ve had a heck of a schedule and I think our guys have confidence as far as who they are and what they’ve done this year,” Narduzzi said. “That’s important.”