The first time Dave Clawson’s Wake Forest football team faced Pitt, the offense led by Kenny Pickett – then just a sophomore – carved the Demon Deacons up in Winston-Salem.
Pickett threw for a then-career-high 326 yards and three touchdowns, completing 23-of-30 passes in a dominant 34-13 victory over Wake Forest that clinched the Coastal Division title for the Panthers in 2018.
Clawson and the Deacs haven’t played against Pickett or Pitt since, but they two sides will face off on Saturday in Charlotte for the ACC Championship at Bank of America Stadium.
The stakes are at an all-time high for both sides. And after studying up on film this week, Clawson enters the game with praise for not just Pickett, but Pitt’s program as a whole.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks we’ve faced in my eight years in the league,” Clawson said of Pickett. “And Jordan Addison is as good a receiver as we’ve defended all year. There’s a lot of good football teams in the ACC, and we’ve played a bunch of them… This is another exceptional football team. You don’t play in this game unless you’re really good.”
Pitt and Wake have both played some superb football this season. And both the Panthers and Deacs are armed with explosive offenses with stellar quarterbacks. Sam Hartman leads a Wake offense that’s third in the nation in points per-game with 42.9. Pickett and Pitt are just behind them at 42.8.
“Pitt is probably as much of a pro-style offense that we’ll play all year,” Clawson said. “There’s a lot of pro concepts that they run. It’s very unique. It is a clear-cut philosophy of what (Mark Whipple) believes and what he does. And they do it very well.”
For Clawson though, he might have even more respect for Pitt’s defense than its offense.
He’s known Pat Narduzzi for quite a while, back to the late 1990s when both were assistant coaches in the Atlantic-10. Clawson was the offensive coordinator at Villanova and Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Rhode Island.
“Those years, we had the better team,” Clawson said with a brief chuckle, deflecting credit for a pair of wins over the Rams.
In that 2018 match-up in Winston-Salem, Narduzzi’s Panthers held Wake to 79 rushing yards on 28 carries – a 2.82 yards per-carry clip – and picked the Deacs off twice in the air. Wake went 4-of-12 on third downs, and was sacked twice too.
“He’s aggressive. He’s not conceding you an inch,” Clawson said. “If you beat Pat, you have to execute and win matchups.”
This season, Pitt’s defense ranks second in the nation in sacks with 46 total and 3.83 per-game. The Panthers are also seventh nationally in third-down-conversion defense, allowing opponents to convert just 31.3% of the time. Pitt also has the fifth-best rushing defense in the country, allowing 92.7 yards on the ground per-game.
“They’ve got a great front four. The defensive end is a great pass rusher. A lot of it is schemes,” Clawson said. “Pat is a guy, as long as I’ve known him, who believes in stopping the run schematically. His goal is to make you one dimensional… They know what they’re doing and the pressure points of what they’re defending.”
This is the second trip ever to the ACC Championship game for both Wake Forest and Pitt. The Panthers went in 2018, but were routed by a talented Clemson team, 42-10. Wake Forest won the last time it played in the game, beating Georgia Tech 9-6 in 2006.
Clawson was asked Friday if anyone from the 2006 team, coached then by Jim Grobe, had reached out. If they had, he hadn’t noticed.
“This isn’t a week for a lot of chit-chat,” Clawson said. “We’re trying to win a football game. As coaches, we’re in the bunker.”