THE MATCHUP: PITT (7-5) VS #2 CLEMSON (12-0)
WHEN: 8:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: BANK OF AMERICAN STADIUM, CHARLOTTE, NC
HOW TO WATCH: ABC
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
On Saturday, Pitt will play for its first ACC championship against the undefeated Clemson Tigers. To earn the title, the Panthers will have to upset the No.2 team in the nation, a feat which they have pulled off in each of the past two seasons.
As 27.5-point underdogs, Pitt isn’t viewed as a team that can even challenge Clemson. But when looking at the 2018 Clemson Tigers, Vegas probably wouldn’t give many FBS teams promising odds. Clemson is an elite program in the midst of an elite season.
Aside from a two-point win at Texas A&M and a four-point victory over Syracuse, head coach Dabo Swinney and the undefeated Tigers have met little resistance in 2018; ten of their wins have come by 20 points-or-more. Their roster is littered with former blue chip recruits and future NFL players, and the Tigers appear to be the team best equipped to dethrone Alabama as National Champions.
Pitt has faced some high-caliber offenses in 2018, but Clemson tops them all. The Tigers rank 3rd in total yards-per-game (539.1) and 5th in scoring offense (45.7 points-per-game), putting them ahead of even Central Florida in both categories. Their 12th ranked rushing offense averages 23.6 more yards-per-game than Pitt’s respected ground game, and they rank 24th in passing yards-per-game with 282.8.
At quarterback, Clemson features one of the most promising passers in recent college football history, true-freshman Trevor Lawrence. After splitting time with incumbent starter Kelly Bryant through the first four games of the season, Rivals.com’s top-rated prospect in the Class of 2018 supplanted Bryant as the starter heading into week-five, catalyzing Bryant’s transfer from the team. At 6-feet-6-inches and 215 pounds, Lawrence has completed 200-of-302 passes for 2,488 yards, 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions on his way to earning second-team All-ACC honors. And while he isn’t as effective at running the ball as Bryant, Lawrence is still fairly mobile for a guy his size.
Lawrence is undoubtedly a rare talent, but Clemson’s receiving corps deserves credit for easing his transition to college football. 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound sophomore Tee Higgins, who earned second-team All-ACC honors this year, is Clemson’s top receiver with 49 receptions for 766 yards and 8 touchdowns. Amari Rodgers and third-team All-ACC selection Hunter Renfrow are also steady contributors in the passing game, and true-freshman Justyn Ross – Rivals.com’s second-ranked receiver in the Class of 2018 – is already living up to lofty expectations. Combining 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound size with top-tier athleticism, Ross is averaging 19.7 yards-per-catch.
Only one player in the ACC can say he has rushed for more yards in 2018 than Pitt’s Qadree Ollison, and that player is Clemson running back Travis Etienne. Etienne, an explosive sophomore averaging 7.97 yards-per-carry, ranks 10th nationally with 1,307 rushing yard, and his 19 rushing touchdowns place him in a tie for 2nd in that category. Having already earned first-team All-ACC honors, more accolades may soon be on the way for the Tigers’ feature back.
When Etienne leaves the field, Lyn-J Dixon and Adam Choice are both highly capable running backs that are responsible for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns on 133 carries, with Dixon averaging 10.2 yards-per-carry. The carries they receive have been earned and not merely allotted when Etienne requires a rest.
Up front, Clemson’s offensive line starts three All-ACC performers and is tied for 11th nationally in sacks allowed-per-game (1.08). One of the most intriguing matchups on Saturday will be left tackle Mitch Hyatt, a first-team All-ACC honoree in 2018, versus the Panthers’ standout defensive end, Rashad Weaver.
Under esteemed defensive coordinator Brent Venables, Clemson is allowing 287.2 total yards-per-game (7th nationally) and 14 points-per-game (4th nationally). They boast the 2nd-ranked rushing defense in the FBS (84.8 yards-per-game allowed), and their 35th-ranked passing defense is respectable.
Miami’s defensive front-four overwhelmed the Panthers’ offensive line last week, and while there are few teams in the country that boast a stronger d-line than the Hurricanes, Clemson is one of them. The Tigers’ line is a large reason why the team’s 9.3 tackles-for-loss per-game ranks 2nd nationally and their 3.58 sacks-per-game is tied for 2nd. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, and defensive end Clelin Farrell all earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2018, and all three may very well be selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft (Farrell and Lawrence are both top-10 prospects overall, according to CBSSports.com). Austin Bryant, the starting defensive end opposite of Farrell, almost seems like an underachiever after earning third-team All-ACC honors this year, although that is certainly not the case. The Tigers bring impressive depth, too, with players like defensive end Xavier Thomas, the fifth-ranked prospect in the Class of 2018, coming off the bench.
Moving back in the defense, the Tigers’ linebackers are talented and decorated. Strongside linebacker Isaiah Simmons and weakside linebacker Kendall Joseph, a third-team All-ACC selection, are tied for the team-lead in tackles with 74 apiece. Middle linebacker Tre Lamar – a former 5-star recruit who stands at an imposing 6-feet-4-inches and 255 pounds – earned second-team All-ACC honors this season with 65 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 sacks and 1 interception.
Rounding out the defense is Clemson’s secondary, headlined by a pair of All-ACC cornerbacks: Trayvon Mullen (second-team) and A.J. Terrell (third-team). Free safety Tanner Muse, with 62 tackles, 2 sacks and 2 interceptions, also earned All-ACC honors by making the third-team.
|Points Per Game||28.0||27.8||45.7||14.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||3118||2415||3261||1598|
|Yards Lost Rushing||326||323||185||581|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.8||4.6||6.6||2.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||232.7||174.3||256.3||84.8|
|Average Yards Per Game||153.4||225.6||282.8||198.4|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.2||5.9||7.4||4.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||386.1||399.9||539.1||283.2|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||22-565||25-515||19-441||27-558|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||16-121||23-218||35-290||14-110|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||9-148||5-67||8-183||8-47|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||25.7||20.6||23.2||20.7|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||7.6||9.5||8.3||7.9|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||16.4||13.4||22.9||5.9|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||15-8||22-9||17-8||27-9|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||87-849||58-485||60-556||77-615|
|Average Per Game||70.8||40.4||46.3||51.2|
|PUNTS – YARDS||59-2450||50-2106||51-2048||95-4171|
|NET YARDS PER PUNT||36.8||38.5||36.8||39.2|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||32:18||27:42||28:44||31:16|
|4th Down Percentage||47%||54%||56%||28%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||28-196||28-206||43-257||13-90|
Clemson may be overwhelming favorites on Saturday night, but Pitt has never lost to the Tigers, leading the all-time series 2-0. The ACC championship game will kick off at 8:00 P.M. on ABC, and local radio listeners can tune in to 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.