THE MATCHUP: Pitt (5-4) at #2 Clemson (9-0)
WHEN: 3:30 PM EST
WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, SC
HOW TO WATCH: ABC
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 The Fan & The Pitt IMG Sports Network
The Panthers travel to “Death Valley” Saturday afternoon looking to avoid a three game losing streak. While the nickname of Memorial Stadium casts an ominous outlook over this matchup, it is the team awaiting Pitt that presents the challenge. Tomorrow, Pitt faces the number two team in the nation: the Clemson Tigers.
Under eighth-year head coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has become one of the elite programs that can lose key contributors to the NFL every year, yet continue to win games. Nine Tigers were drafted last year, including four players in the first two rounds, and a “0” still appears in their loss column. Clemson’s key victories this year include a road win over Auburn (19-13), a home win versus Louisville (42-36), and a road victory at Florida State (37-34). Though these games were all decided by six points or fewer, not many other teams would survive the Tigers’ schedule unscathed.
Clemson’s success has also resulted in the departure of assistant coaches. Esteemed offensive coordinator Chad Morris left for the head coaching position at SMU following last season. But just like the Tigers do when they lose a star player, they found highly capable replacements. Co-coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliot have the offense averaging 488.4 yards and 38.6 points-per-game in 2016.
Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables returns, calling the plays for a defense that ranks 12th in the nation in total defense (312.9 yards-per-game allowed), and 8th in scoring defense (15.7 points-per-game). His continued excellence as defensive coordinator makes him one of the highest paid assistants in college football, and a popular candidate for future head coaching positions.
Previewing the Tigers’ roster is difficult; the stats and honors are easy to research, but not every detail and player can be included. This week, we break down Pitt’s opponent by positional groups, since each unit boasts at least one standout player deserving of mention:
Quarterback: At this point, almost everyone knows about Heisman Trophy candidate and potential top-10 NFL draft selection, Deshaun Watson. The 6’3” 215-pound junior boasts quite the list of accolades from his two-and-a-half seasons at Clemson. Watson won the Davey O’Brien award and earned first team All-American honors in 2015, establishing himself as college football’s premier quarterback—and he has continued that form this season. His 2016 statistics are on par with his numbers from last year, when he became the first player in FBS history to reach both 4,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. Through the air, Watson has completed 204 of 317 passes for 2,497 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. On the ground, he has added 370 yards and 2 touchdowns on 95 carries. With a strong finish to the season, a Heisman Trophy remains well within Watson’s grasp.
Wide Receiver: Talented receivers have been the bane of Pitt’s defense this season. Clemson’s Mike Williams, a 6’3” 225-pound junior, is arguably the most talented receiver Pitt will face in 2016. Williams, projected by NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler to go 11th overall in the 2017 draft, has 52 receptions for 754 yards and 5 touchdowns this year. His production is even more impressive considering he missed practically all of 2015 due to injury. On opening day last season, Williams fractured his neck after colliding head first with the goal post on a touchdown reception.
Joining Williams are Artavis Scott and Deon Cain. Scott, a 2015 first team All-ACC honoree, has 38 receptions for 329 yards and 3 touchdowns. Cain, a 5-star recruit from the class of 2015, adds 22 receptions for 449 yards and 8 touchdowns. Needless to say, this will be a difficult week for the Panthers’ secondary to reverse their fortunes against the pass.
Running Back: Junior Wayne Gallman assumes the duty of primary ball carrier for Clemson. The 2015 first team All-ACC performer leads Clemson with 120 attempts for 634 yards and 8 touchdowns. His contributions as a receiver have dropped this season with the return of Mike Williams and the emergence of a young receivers; Watson has thrown the ball to his feature back a mere 9 times. Regardless, Gallman remains a talented runner who recently stated that he will declare for the NFL draft at season’s end. CBS Sports currently projects the 6’0” 210-pound runner as a second to third round selection in a particularly deep draft class at the running back position.
Tight End: Rounding out the weapons at Watson’s choosing is 6’5” 260-pound Jordan Leggett. The Tigers’ tight end earned first team All-ACC honors in 2015, and CBS Sports currently projects him as a second round draft pick. His 22 receptions for 385 yards and 4 touchdowns rank right up there with Clemson’s receivers.
Offensive Line: Overall, the Clemson offensive line is a talented unit with above average production. They are tied for 16th nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.22), and contribute to a running attack averaging 4.5 yards-per-carry. 2015 second team All-ACC center Jay Guillermo is the lone senior amongst the starters. Junior guard Tyrone Crowder returns after being named third team All-ACC last year. However, the player to watch is left tackle Mitch Hyatt. Hyatt, a 6’5” 295-pound sophomore, earned third team All-ACC honors as a true freshman in 2015, and is already recognized as one of the top tackles in college football. Mitch Hyatt versus Ejuan Price will assuredly present an intriguing matchup to monitor tomorrow afternoon.
Defensive Line: The Tigers lost star defensive linemen Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd to the NFL draft last year, yet they may have improved. At tackle, mammoth true freshman Dexter Lawrence, the nation’s number two overall recruit in 2016, is playing well beyond his years. The 6’5” 340-pounder has 54 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss, and 4 sacks. On Monday, Pat Narduzzi even proclaimed that the freshman “might be the best player [Clemson] have on defense.” Pairing with Lawrence in the middle is senior Carlos Watkins. Watkins continues to impress one year after being voted second-team All-ACC last season, posting 46 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Christian Wilkins, a 5-star defensive tackle in the class of 2015, lines up as a 6’4” 310-pound defensive end. He has registered 43 tackles, 10.0 tackles-for-loss, and 3.5 sacks after earning Freshman All-American honors last season.
Linebacker: Senior linebacker Ben Boulware, a 2015 first team All-ACC performer, returns for the Tigers. Boulware has 74 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, and an interception on the season. Middle linebacker Kendall Joseph, a first year starter, is also in the midst of a highly productive season. To date, he has 73 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 7.0 tackles-for-loss, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception.
Cornerback: 6’1” 200-pound corner Cordrea Tankersley replaces 2016 second round draft pick Mackensie Alexander as the Tigers’ feature corner. A third team All-ACC honoree last year, Tankersley’s play this season has him projected as a first round selection in CBS Sports’ most recent 2017 mock draft. While he has only managed 1 interception in 2016, Tankersley has broken up 8 passes and was recently labeled “the best shutdown corner in the ACC” by ESPN.
Safety: Clemson fields a pair of impressive first year starters at the safety positions. Sophomore Van Smith leads the Tigers in overall tackles with 75, after receiving limited playing time as a freshman. Complimenting Smith is Jadar Johnson, a senior whose 4 interceptions and 7 passes broken up earned midseason first team All-ACC honors from ESPN.
Below is this week’s statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||37.0||34.4||38.6||15.7|
|Points Off Turnovers||48||30||58||44|
|Yards Gained Rushing||2196||1301||1636||1537|
|Yards Lost Rushing||212||297||122||342|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.0||3.4||4.5||3.6|
|Average Yards Per Game||220.4||111.6||168.2||132.8|
|Average Yards Per Pass||8.3||8.5||8.0||5.5|
|Average Yards Per Catch||13.9||14.0||12.3||10.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||201.9||317.1||320.2||180.1|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.2||6.1||6.3||4.5|
|Average Yards Per Game||422.3||428.7||488.4||312.9|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||28-859||36-744||18-418||33-613|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||11-130||22-212||21-208||6-44|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||4-92||4-12||15-205||10-99|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||30.7||20.7||23.2||18.6|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||11.8||9.6||9.9||7.3|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||23.0||3.0||13.7||9.9|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||13-6||11-7||15-8||13-5|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||52-438||56-472||57-501||80-631|
|Average Per Game||48.7||52.4||55.7||70.1|
|PUNTS – YARDS||44-1884||45-1877||36-1385||63-2540|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.8||41.7||38.5||40.3|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.2||38.4||36.1||36.1|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||59-3677||60-3770||65-3897||32-1960|
|Average Yards Per Kick||62.3||62.8||60.0||61.2|
|Net Yards Per Kick||40.0||35.6||40.9||38.8|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||33:02||26:58||28:31||30:49|
|4th Down Percentage||60%||67%||67%||44%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||29-233||6-45||33-225||11-54|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||41/42||35/35||38/40||15/16|
On the injury front, starting right tackle Jake Fruhmorgen and cornerback Adrian Baker are out for Clemson. The Tigers have numerous other players who have been banged up, but all are expected to play. Of these players, quarterback Deshaun Watson is the unquestioned difference maker. Watson exited last week’s game against Syracuse with a minor shoulder injury.
For the Panthers, their injury report continues to grow. Phillipie Motley, Tre Tipton, and Zach Challingsworth are out, while Tyrique Jarett and Rori Blair are questionable.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 3:30pm. It will be broadcasted on ABC, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. Pittsburgh Sports Now will be hosting a watch party at Cupka’s Café on the Southside should you need somewhere to view the game, and you can follow the staff for in-game updates via Twitter.
Clemson is favored to win by 21 points tomorrow afternoon. The odds are not good for Pitt—but the odds of defeating the current Clemson team in Death Valley would not be good for anyone. However, there remains one fact that may provide Panther fans with optimism on Saturday: The last time Pitt played the second ranked team in the nation on the road, they won 13-9.
Anything can happen in college football.