CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Between swigs from a half-empty bottle of Diet Coke, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney fielded questions and told stories late Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium.
It was after midnight, but the coach was still full of energy, basking in the celebration of winning his fourth straight ACC Championship. One answer to a question morphed into a five-minute long monologue about consistency, journeys, joy and how proud he is of his football team. Swinney concluded with a short tale about recruiting a player from a small Louisiana town with a population of less than 11,000 people.
And had Swinney not sat with that player and his family, capturing the 2018 ACC Championship may have been a little more difficult for the Tigers.
“We try to recruit people first and players second,” he said. “When I went to Jennings, Lousiana, and I sat over there at his grand-momma’s house, and his mom was there and his sister and brother, you know, I just knew. This is a special young man,” Swinney said. “To see him come in here and do what he’s done and to be so humble about it. He doesn’t even really know that he’s a great player. He just kind of goes about his business and he’s a great teammate.”
The player Swinney spoke of was sitting just inches away from him. It was Travis Etienne, the ACC Player of the Year and the championship game’s MVP.
One of Pitt’s strengths this season has been stopping opponents from running rampant. Pat Narduzzi’s side had allowed just one team to rush for more than 300 yards, and that was Georgia Tech, which led the nation in total rushing offense by way of Paul Johnson’s triple-option machine.
But Clemson joined that exclusive club Saturday night. On a muddy turf at the home of the Carolina Panthers, the Tigers ran, ran and ran some more. Pitt had no answer and No. 2 Clemson cruised to a 42-10 win.
In total, the Tigers rushed for 301 yards on 35 totes, good enough for a per-carry average of 8.6 yards.
“Well, we weren’t really sure coming into it. I mean, (Pitt) is really good. They forced the issue,” Swinney said. “This wasn’t going to be a 15-round deal. They don’t get in the ring and dance around and pop out and get out and let the clock run. They’re a knock you out or you knock them out type of team. They’re in your face, toe-to-toe. They challenge you. The safeties are downhill, the backers are downhill. But we fit some things up. We opened up the game with a little outside zone.”
It was Etienne who led the way in Clemson’s ground attack, racking up 156 yards on 12 carries. The sophomore also set the tone for the Tigers with his first touch, ripping off a long run on the very first play from scrimmage.
Out of a shotgun set, Etienne stood to the left of Trevor Lawrence and darted in front of the freshman quarterback to take the handoff. He bounced into one hole, then outran three Pitt defenders as he took the play outside, toward the right sideline. Once he was in open space, he beat Pitt corner Jason Pinnock in a foot race to the endzone.
“That was about as well-blocked a play we’ve had all year. (Etienne) made a great run,” Swinney said. “He did a great job of stretching it and setting the blocks.”
Before the game even started, Etienne said he knew what the first play call would be.
“It was kind of a little outside zone that we’ve been running all week,” Etienne said. “Getting that handoff and seeing the backer, where he fit, it was just well-blocked. There was just a big hole and I got around to the outside and (sophomore wideout Amari Rodgers) just has his guy just standing still. After that, I just knew I was gone. It was great block downfield by Amari. I wouldn’t have made it without him.”
Etienne covered 75 yards of turf in 13 seconds for Clemson’s first touchdown. It marked the earliest score ever in the ACC Championship and it was also the longest play from scrimmage in the history of the annual title game.
“Travis breaking off that huge run really gave us some juice going out there on the field,” Clemson linebacker Tre Lamar said. “We wanted to keep the ball rolling in that first quarter and really let people know that we came out here, not just to slop around.”
The play illustrated how large the gap in talent is between the players of Clemson and Pitt. This was Pitt’s first time in the ACC title game. This was Clemson’s fourth consecutive victory in it. The Tigers joined the 1993-1996 Florida Gators as the only FBS teams to win their conference championships outright four seasons in a row.
Clemson is a team that can beat its opposition in a number of ways. The undefeated Tigers can have Lawrence sling the ball for 300 yards, they can have their defense suffocate the opposing offense, or they can grind teams into nothing.
On Saturday night, as the game wore on, it became apparent to Swinney that the third option was most suitable.
“I thought the game itself was a lot of fun. Sloppy, grindy, awful footing, just wet, but just a lot of fun,” Swinney said. “We were fortunate that we were able to get a fast start and a quick lead… For us to be able to run the ball for 300 yards, a lot of credit (goes to Etienne). What a year he’s had. It’s been special to watch Travis blossom into the player that he is. He took it over for us.”
But when Clemson wasn’t gouging Pitt on the ground for big gains, Lawrence had some success passing too. It wasn’t a highlight-filled night for him, but he took care of the ball and finished 12-of-24 for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
“I feel like we have a good balanced attack,” Lawrence said. “When one is not working, we go to the other and mix it up.”
Still, it was hard for Clemson to go away from something that was getting them eight yards per-play. Only once was Etienne stopped for no gain. Aside from that, one of his shortest runs of the night was a three-yard scamper for Clemson’s second touchdown in the first quarter.
“He’s a strong back. He’s a good back,” Pitt linebacker Olawaseun Idowu said of Etienne. “There’s similar backs that we’ve seen in the past. The fundamentals are just tackling.”
The Panthers have watched some backs like Etienne run by them this season. He joined Duke’s Deon Jackson and Miami’s Travis Homer as rushers who have ran for more than 150 yards against Pitt this season.
Coming out of high school, Jennings was a four-star recruit with 29 Division I scholarships to choose from. Clemson was one of four ACC schools to offer him, joining Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. Swinney’s visit to Etienne’s grandmother’s living room is paying off now.
Etienne has 1,307 yards rushing so far this year to go along with 19 touchdowns. Those numbers will likely increase as Clemson goes into the College Football Playoff.
Whether Clemson is facing Alabama, Notre Dame or one of the other teams vying for a spot in the playoff, Swinney may call on Etienne again to carry the load for the Tigers’ offense. If any of those opponents present gaps in their run defense like Pitt did, expect Clemson to expose them.
And expect a sophomore from Jennings, Louisiana to lead the way.
“We just kind of did what we’ve done all year and stuck with our zone and our counter scheme. We mixed in a little outside zone,” Swinney said. “We just danced with who brung us. That’s what we did. And we were able to win the match-up up front.”