After two straight games with big wins, Pitt walks into the abyss that is Death Valley in hopes of pulling off a shocking upset over Clemson. With key players, including star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, returning to play this week, Pitt is facing a rejuvenated and hungry Clemson team that is champing at the bit for more action. After a tough loss to Notre Dame, Clemson simply can not afford to lose another game or they will lose hope of a trip to the College Football Playoff. How can Pitt miraculously pull off the upset?
Key 1: Step Up In the Secondary
If Pitt is to win this game, they have to get a few turnovers. Remember, the last time that Pitt beat Clemson in 2016 Deshaun Watson threw the ball with ease but Pitt made some key plays in the secondary with Watson throwing three interceptions. Unfortunately for Pitt, Trevor Lawrence is even less prone to turnovers than Watson was during his time at Clemson. Over his illustrious three-year career, Lawrence has only thrown 14 interceptions. That is asking for a lot, but the Pitt secondary is one that has been opportunistic this year and has some ballhawks in its ranks.
Even outside of making splash plays, however, the Panthers need to win a decent amount of one-on-one opportunities. The Tigers have talent in Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell, Frank Ladson, and of course, Travis Etienne. All of those guys are highly recruited, high pedigree guys that Pitt is theoretically outmatched against.
If there is one thing that Pitt has going for them it is that Clemson has struggled to find that next outside receiver with Justyn Ross hurt. Assuming Brandon Hill plays, he and A.J. Woods make for a speedy duo in the secondary that can keep up with anyone. Damar Hamlin is as savvy as they come and can make up for his average athleticism with his head. Jason Pinnock has proven he can step up to challenges. It is hard to ask this of the team and this secondary, but if they want to pull it out, they need to be a high-level coverage unit that can force turnovers.
Lawrence will make all the NFL throws this game. He has done it all season, so the Pitt secondary needs to have their best game of the year on Saturday. Whether they can do it will mean the difference between a chance at the stunning upset or Clemson likely cruising.
Key 2: Spread Clemson Out Defensively
Clemson has had a bit of issue at their linebacker spot this year. That is both in the passing game and the running game. Now, prefacing this they were missing both Mike Jones Jr. and James Skalski. It seems like Jones is ready to suit up again this week, but there is no sign of Skalski. Without the leader of their defense in Skalski healthy, the Tigers have some cracks to potentially exploit. Nothing is going to be concrete, and this Tigers defense is healthier than they have been since early in the season, but attacking the linebackers is a strategy Pitt could certainly employ.
Spreading teams out is one way that the Panthers have found success in recent weeks. Against Clemson, that would be a smart strategy to try and create mismatches against these linebackers on the Tigers. Pitt has no shortage of wide receiver talent. With the possible return of Jordan Addison and Jared Wayne in addition to players like Jaylon Barden, DJ Turner, and others, Pitt can create some tough matchups for the Tigers linebackers and even safeties.
No matter how the Panthers plan to try and win this game, one thing is clear and it is that they have to move the football consistently. Against a hungry Tigers team, that is a tall task, but playing into the strengths of the offense and letting the machine run through the air is the best way to go about things as far as an opening script. The Panthers can get off to a hot start and try to set the vibe of the game right away.
Key 3: Keep Kenny Pickett Upright
This game rides or dies on the offensive momentum this team is able to keep at some level. Nothing would kill that sooner than sacks or potential turnovers caused by rampant pressure. The Panthers offensive line looked the best it has arguably all season against Virginia Tech and it will be interesting to see the lineup they roll with this week. That is an encouraging sign heading into the game against a talented Clemson defensive front that could return star defensive tackle Tyler Davis.
The Tigers are far from what they once were on the defensive line, but they are still a potent force to be reckoned with. The Panthers offensive line will have to step up in a huge way. Clemson is right up there with the Panthers defense in terms of sacks per game and tackles for loss per game. They are as disruptive a unit as any out there right now. If the Panthers want to light the Tigers up in the passing game, protecting Pickett is priority number one.
Key 4: Slow Down Travis Etienne
Last but not least, the Panthers have to game plan not just for Lawrence, but also his best offensive weapon in Travis Etienne. Etienne’s elite speed has caught the attention of fans everywhere and he is projected to be an early round draft pick this upcoming NFL Draft.
The thing with Etienne this year has not been running the football. In fact, Clemson is rather mediocre in terms of actually running the football. The Panthers defensive line will have to slow down Etienne on the ground, but this is not a run blocking unit and the Panthers have an elite defensive line to match.
Etienne’s real presence has been through the air, where he is the Tigers’ second leading receiver. On manufactured touches and playing as an actual receiver at times, Etienne has been a nightmare for teams to deal with all across the board. HIs presence alone creates opportunities for others to exploit and capitalize off of as a result. The Panthers will have an extra long day if Etienne runs wild like he can.
The Panthers will certainly not be able to take both Etienne and Lawrence away. The Tigers offense is too good and too much of a well-oiled machine. At some point, they will come around with some haymakers, even if it takes time to shake off the rust. The end result should be the Panthers trying to limit them and nab some turnovers. As an opportunistic defense with a hungry, fiery quarterback, that is this team’s road to victory.