Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence might be the best player in college football.
A reasonable argument can be made for dynamic Ohio State passer Justin Fields, but Lawrence is certainly no farther down the list than No. 2.
After missing his team’s last two games against Boston College and Notre Dame with a positive COVID-19 test, and then Clemson’s entire team missing its scheduled Nov. 21 game against Florida State after a lineman tested positive late in the week, Lawrence is scheduled to return to the field on Saturday when Pitt visits the No. 4 Tigers in Death Valley.
All eyes will be on No. 16 in Orange and White, as observers around the world will be looking to see if the Heisman Trophy candidate can get back in the saddle, shake the rust off and lock things down for the stretch run for Clemson to set up a rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game.
Given all that, it’s almost insane to say, but Lawrence will not be the focal point of Pitt’s defensive efforts leading up to the game.
Pitt has plenty of respect for Lawrence, who led the Tigers in a drubbing of Pitt in the 2018 ACC Championship Game and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi heaped paragraphs of praise on the star in the making during his weekly press conference on Monday.
But stopping Lawrence will not be job No. 1 for the Pitt defense, and the Panthers’ last two games against the Tigers show exactly why.
In 2016, Pitt was the last team to leave Death Valley with a victory when Chris Blewitt’s long field goal in the waning seconds made them upset winners over the then-No. 2 team in the country.
In that game, Deshaun Watson looked every but the collegiate superstar before going on to be a first-round draft pick and NFL star with the Houston Texans. He threw for and absurd 580 yards against Pitt that evening on 52 of 70 passing, setting career highs in attempts, completions and passing yards.
But Pitt was able to prevail, in large part, because they were able to silence the other half of Clemson’s offense. Current New York Giants running back Wayne Gallman ran for 1,133 yards for the Tigers in 2016, but against Pitt, he managed just 36 yards on 18 carries.
The game’s final possessions turned when Gallman was unable to gain one yard on a fourth down with under a minute left, setting Pitt up with the field position necessary to let Blewitt attempt his game-winner.
Fast forward to 2018, and the game told the near opposite story. In a driving rainstorm in Charlotte, Clemson running back Travis Etienne chewed up the Pitt defense and spit them out, churning for 156 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns, including a backbreaking 75-yard score.
In that game, Lawrence passed for a pedestrian 118 yards, but Clemson hardly needed his services while coasting to a 42-10 victory.
Stopping the running game is always a big part of Pitt’s defensive game plan, but when a team has the talent on the offensive line and at running back to beat you without ever having to throw the ball, it becomes essential.
“It always is,” Narduzzi said Monday. “If you don’t stop the run … We had a chance to beat them down there, with whatever they had rushing, 50 yards rushing that day. And then they had 300 yards rushing in the championship game. So that’s certainly the deal. You’ve got to make it one dimensional. And really they didn’t throw it much in that ACC Championship Game, but it didn’t really matter. They didn’t have to.”
Even in Watson’s career-best performance against Pitt, he threw three interceptions, giving Pitt critical extra possessions that Nate Peterman and company were able to take advantage of. Etienne almost certainly isn’t going to fumble three times.
If Pitt is going to follow the blueprint of 2016, they’ll need to stack the box against Etienne and make the Clemson passing game beat them, even if that passing game is led by perhaps the best college quarterback on the planet.
It’s been done this year. Notre Dame was able to shut Etienne down in the Irish victory over Clemson on Nov. 7, holding him to 28 yards on 18 carries despite the game going into two overtimes.
They had the fortune of not having to face Lawrence attacking their secondary, with backup D.J. Uiagalelei manning the helm. That likely won’t be the case for Pitt, but it’s still the most proven way to top the Tigers, even if daring Lawrence to beat them seems crazy. That’s why they have long odds at victory, but Narduzzi has beaten those odds before.
“You really worry about what we do, not worrying about Clemson and who they are,” he said. “I’m really not going to focus on us being an underdog or it’s a 40-point spread, whatever it is. Just going to focus on what we do.”