In the 2018 ACC Championship Game, Clemson represents a formidable opponent for the Pitt Panthers.
The undefeated Tigers are the No. 2 team in the country. They have the best run defense in the nation. Clemson’s players and coaches have been recognized both by the ACC and nationally as some of the best around. Pitt enters Saturday’s game in Charlotte as a 28-point underdog.
And yet, Pitt can beat Clemson. We can be sure because they’ve done it before.
The Panthers knocked off the Tigers, 43-42 in Death Valley in 2016. Clemson was pretty good then, too. Those Tigers, also No. 2 at the time, went on to win the National Championship that year
Pitt will be a heavy underdog, but given recent history, victory must be considered as a possibility. But how would Pitt go about knocking off the No. 2 team in the country — again?
To find out, I asked some of the people that did it last time. Here’s what they said:
HAVE SOME WRINKLES
If Pitt lines up and does what they’ve done all year, and Clemson lines up and does what they’ve done all year, the Panthers are going to get smashed.
It’s incumbent upon the underdog to come up with something different, some kind of wrinkle, that can tip the scales in their favor.
That could be a different emphasis, a new play, a new personnel package, a change in tempo — anything. Ideally, they should have a few of them lined up, in case the first one doesn’t work.
When one does work, Pitt needs to keep hammering it, and force Clemson to adjust. That’s what Pitt did in 2016, when coming into the week, offensive coordinator Matt Canada emphasized Pitt’s shovel pass option game.
“We knew it was going to be a big part of our game plan going in,” tight end Scott Orndoff said.
The Tigers had trouble with it all day, and as a result, Orndoff had a career day, making nine catches for 129 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
“Once we ran it a few times we saw that they kept working and they weren’t adjusting to them,” he said. “I think of all my catches, five or six of them were shovel passes.”
GET BIG PLAYS FROM UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
Orndoff wasn’t the only Pitt player that had a career day against Clemson. Some lesser-known performers also made significant contributions.
Tight end Jaymar Parrish, who only had 146 receiving yards in his four-year Pitt career, had 44 of them on a long first-half pass play.
Linebacker Saleem Brightwell, then a little-used substitute for Mike Caprara, made an interception in the end zone and returned it 70 yards.
Unsung fullback George Aston scored two touchdowns on the day, and said those are the types of contributions that Pitt will need again the Saturday.
“Definitely,” Aston said. “You look at any big game, any team at any level, it takes more than just a guy or two making big plays. The whole team has to have a great game overall.”
MAKE TIMELY PLAYS
Pitt did not turn in a defensive gem the last time around, surrendering 630 yards and 42 points to the Tigers. “I didn’t really realize how we didn’t stop them,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said.
But that fourth down stop that got Pitt the ball back late was critical. The Panthers stopped Wayne Gallman in the backfield for a loss on first down. Deshuan Watson hit Mike Williams for a 10-yard gain on second down, tantalizingly close to the sticks. The Tigers let the clock run down to 1:11 and called timeout. Pitt had just one left. A first down would have ended the game.
It was a couple more unsung heroes that turned the tide. Allen Edwards stuffed Gallman for no gain on third down and Pitt called its final timeout with 1:02 remaining. On fourth down, it was Gallman again, but backup defensive tackle Jeremiah Taleni — filling in for the injured Tyrique Jarrett — knifed into the backfield. Gallman avoided Taleni, but was dragged down by linebacker Matt Galambos short of the line of scrimmage.
“It was just a huge play,” said Terrish Webb, who saw the play unfold while crashing down from his safety spot. “And it was absolutely critical that we got that stop.”
HAVE A HERO
With the ball back in Nate Peterman’s hands, he didn’t take long to move the Panthers into position for a game-winning field goal. A nine-yard scramble and a 21-yard catch-and-run by Orndoff had Pitt well within the range of kicker Chris Blewitt.
But it had been a tough day for Blewitt, who had hit the upright on an earlier missed extra point and drove a long field goal attempt at the end of the first half into the backs of his blockers.
“I figured out really, what I was doing wrong, and I could feel it,” Blewitt said. “I could tell how I was coming in, I was hitting it a little bit on the right side of the ball, which was how it hooked and hit the upright on the extra point. The same thing on the long field goal. I did the same thing, just a little bit more exaggerated, which made me hit the ground and hit a liner.”
Blewitt identified the adjustment he needed to make at halftime and implemented it, but had just one extra point attempt in the second half to put it into practice. There’s a big difference between that and kicking a 48-yard, game-winning field goal with six seconds left in front of 85,000 screaming fans.
Blewitt was helped out by his veteran field-goal unit of senior long snapper Pat Quirin and junior holder Ryan Winslow.
“I don’t think Pat gets enough credit,” Blewitt said. “He’d been there for a few game-winners. Ryan could always get the ball on the spot. When you have full, 100 percent confidence in those guys, it makes my job easier.”
The snap was good, the ball went down, and Blewitt knew he’d won the game as soon as he’d hit it.
“When it hit my foot, I knew I hit that ball pretty pure,” Blewitt said. “I knew it was good.”
THIS YEAR’S VERSION
Pitt has certainly shown the willingness to make some wrinkles in scheme. They played all nickel defense a few times this year. They broke out with V’Lique Carter on offense against Duke, and then changed his number to try to use him as a secret weapon again. They called a fake punt at Notre Dame. They haven’t all worked, but Pitt is certainly willing to try.
They’ve gotten some of those performance from less-heralded players like Carter, but they probably need more to beat the Tigers on Saturday.
They’ve also made timely plays in some of their wins, like Therran Coleman’s overtime interception against Syracuse.
They also have a kicker that owns the Heinz Field record and has booted several 50-plus yarders.
That doesn’t mean that it will all come together for the Panthers on Saturday. The odds are still stacked against them. But they’ve done it before, and it appears they’re able to follow the same blueprint to victory. Time will tell if they’re able.