CLEMSON, S.C. – The last time Dabo Swinney’s boys lost a game in Death Valley, Trevor Lawrence was a junior in high school. The Pitt Panthers came to town on that day – Nov. 12, 2016 – and handed the then-ranked No. 1 Tigers a stunning 43-42 loss.
Pitt had the opportunity to make the same sort of strong statement on Saturday, their first trip to Memorial Stadium since pulling off that upset. The Panthers were riding a two-game winning streak and coming off a dominant win over Virginia Tech. They had some momentum.
No. 4 Clemson, meanwhile, was playing its first game since losing in double-overtime at No. 2 Notre Dame on Nov. 7.
Instead of putting up a competitive fight against one of the top teams in the country, Pitt went out with a whimper. The only thing the Panthers proved on Saturday is that they aren’t Notre Dame, they aren’t capable of beating Clemson and – too often – looked like they had no business of being on the same field as the Tigers.
Pitt looked unprepared and outmatched as Clemson rolled to a 52-17 victory behind Lawrence’s 403 passing yards.
It was one of the most lopsided defeats Pitt has suffered this season, right up there with the Panthers’ 45-3 loss to the Irish on Oct. 24.
“First off, give Clemson credit. That’s a good football team,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “The kids played hard. We didn’t make enough plays. … It definitely is a measuring stick. The ACC is strong. It tells you where you are and what you got to do to get back to where you need to be. We didn’t make plays today on either side of the ball.
“I would not say we’re where we need to be talent-wise, when you look at what Clemson is recruiting and what Notre Dame is recruiting. … I love our kids. I’ll still take our kids any day because they’re going to fight.”
LAWRENCE SHOWS NFL TALENT
Pitt chances at winning Saturday might have been slightly increased if Lawrence wasn’t under center for the Tigers. The projected No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft missed his last two starts due to COVID-19 protocols and, due to the schedule, hadn’t played in a game in more than a month.
But in what was likely the final appearance of his playing career in Death Valley, Lawrence was at his best. He was sharp, he was masterful, he escaped tackles and he kept making plays. There was nothing Pitt could do to stop him.
“He’s been one of the best players in college football from a true freshman to now. He makes that team run,” Pitt defensive end Rashad Weaver said of Lawrence. “Without him, who knows what that team is, but that’s how football goes when you have a great player that can change games by their self. He came back after not playing for 28 days and showed what kind of player he is.”
Lawrence connected with one of his receivers on a red-zone fade and hit another one on a flea-flicker bomb. He was largely unaffected by Pitt’s vaunted pass rush.
In addition to his passing yards, the long-haired Clemson quarterback finished the day with two touchdowns through the air and 32 rushing yards.
Hot Take: Trevor Lawrence is good
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) November 28, 2020
Lawrence’s efforts were aided by a solid Clemson rushing attack, too. Travis Etienne scampered for 58 yards on 11 carries. He, Lyn-J Dixon and Chez Mellusi each notched touchdowns on the ground. Mellusi also caught a touchdown pass from D.J. Uiagalelei, who relieved Lawrence at the start of the fourth quarter.
“Lawrence and Etienne, they are what they are – great football players,” Narduzzi said. “We gave them some short fields early, for sure.”
It would be an understatement to say that Kenny Pickett had a rough outing Saturday.
Pitt’s quarterback threw three interceptions in the first quarter and finished the day with a less-than-satisfactory stat line of 209 passing yards, two touchdowns and four picks.
Some of Pickett’s mistakes were on his own, but other times he was asked to do too much. Two of his turnovers were tipped passes.
“That hurt us incredibly,” Pitt center Jimmy Morrissey said. “It’s hard to come back from three turnovers.”
Added Narduzzi, “(Clemson) did a nice job of getting their hands up and putting pressure on our quarterback. He was under stress all, day I think.”
Pickett’s first interception came on Pitt’s second drive, when he threw into a crowded area from his own red-zone. The second came on the first play of Pitt’s fourth drive, and the play call was flea-flicker. Pickett’s downfield target was double-covered, but he chucked the ball anyways. It proved to be an underthrown pass and Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. came up with an easy catch.
Andrew Booth flying through the sky to get the pick! Check this out.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) November 28, 2020
The poor performance for Pickett was somewhat surprising considering he had one of the best games of his career just a week ago, when he topped 400 passing yards and totaled three touchdowns against Virginia Tech.
If Pickett wants to be an NFL Draft pick like Lawrence, he’ll need to be more consistent in his final few starts for Pitt. But also, Pitt’s coaches will need to put him in a position to succeed. It would be foolish to argue that Pickett is as talented as Lawrence, but another key difference between the two is that Lawrence has much more talent around him.
With his passing totals, the 6-foot-2 senior from Oakwood, New Jersey did pass Pitt legend Dan Marino in the record books for fourth place for most career yards of total offense. Pickett was relieved late by Joey Yellen and Davis Beville. Neither fared much better.
During Pitt’s postgame Zoom interviews, Pickett was not available. It wasn’t his best game, but after an abysmal first quarter, he fought.
“One thing about Kenny Pickett, he got no quit in him,” Morrissey said. “I love playing with him. It’s been an honor having him as my quarterback. I love him.”
RUNNING GAME ABSENT AGAIN
When Pitt met Clemson in the ACC title game in 2018, its running game was the bread and butter of the offense. The Panthers are a long way from that sort of offensive identity now, but having at least a decent running game is still crucial to winning games.
On Saturday, Pitt’s running game was mostly absent. When it was rolled out, it was ineffective. Aside from Pickett’s 11 keepers for -24 yards, Panthers ball carriers had just 40 rushing yards on 13 carries, a 3.1 yards per-carry clip. That’s not bad, but Pitt couldn’t really lean on that ground attack when it was behind by four possessions heading into the second quarter.
“Our game is to throw the ball to set up the run with our pass. You get so far behind and you don’t have the opportunity to get your good runs in there, trying to play catch-up,” Narduzzi said.
While Pickett put up big numbers against the Hokies last week, Pitt’s running game was solid too, topping 150 yards and averaging 4.8 yards per-carry. Had the Panthers been armed with a solid rushing attack on Saturday, their offense might’ve been less predictable and they would’ve relied less on an overwhelmed Pickett.
For the second straight game, Pitt was without three starters on the offensive line, which didn’t help their offensive woes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, All-ACC selections Tyler Davis and James Skalski returned to action for Clemson’s defense.
“At the end of the day, it’s Clemson,” Morrisey said. “There’s a reason why they’re in the playoff every year. They’re well-coached and they have a good scheme.”
NOT ENOUGH PLAYS FROM THE DEFENSE
Pitt had one of the best defenses in the country coming into Death Valley. They led the nation in tackles-for-loss (97), sacks (40) and were fourth in interceptions with 12, the most the unit has registered since 2012.
But against the mighty Tigers, the Panthers’ defense often seemed powerless and incompetent. Lawrence, Etienne and the others had their way with Pitt’s defense for most of the afternoon. When it mattered, Pitt didn’t do any of the things it’s particularly good at.
The Panthers hardly rattled Lawrence – sacking him just three times – and registered only five total tackles behind the line of scrimmage, below their average of 10.8 per-game. And Lawrence, who played nearly mistake-free football all afternoon, did not throw an interception.
To pull off an unlikely upset of Clemson, Pitt needed to shake up Lawrence, stop Etienne from running up the gut and force multiple turnovers. They did neither of those things and missed a few key tackles along the way.
Pitt did get a strip-sack on Lawrence early in the third quarter courtesy of Weaver, but the Panthers were down 28 points by then. The turnover led to a Pitt touchdown, but Clemson soon marched down the field again to pad its lead. The Panthers defense fought late, but the hole Pitt was in proved to be much too deep.
Weaver was a standout on defense for Pitt, finishing with two sacks, two QB hits, a forced fumble and five total tackles.
“Rashad Weaver, Patrick Jones – those guys play hard every day,” Narduzzi said. “I don’t question what they did. Rashad Weaver is a good football player, going to play at the next level.”
The loss for Narduzzi’s side drops them to 5-5 overall and 4-5 in ACC play. Should Pitt fall in its regular season finale against Georgia Tech, it’ll be the second time during his tenure that Pitt has had a sub-.500 record in conference play.
“As an individual, you can’t really say you did good with five losses. I don’t really see how you can be too proud of it,” Weaver said. “You can ask anybody; this is not the goal we had for this team. We thought every game on our schedule was winnable. College football is all about consistency. We just haven’t been consistent enough. Obviously, it’s a failure within what we had our goals set on. We didn’t reach our goals.”