WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.24 CLEMSON AT NO.23 PITT
- 2021-10-23 12:49:09
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
When the schedule first came out, I knew that this would be one of the Tigers’ most dangerous games, especially with Kenny Pickett coming back as the Panthers’ starting quarterback for a fifth year. That is almost unheard of. But this clash is now one of the biggest showdowns of the season in the ACC with enormous stakes for both teams. With a double overtime loss already to NC State, which is still undefeated in ACC play and just blew out a good BC team, the Tigers have no more margin for error. They must win the rest of their ACC games—even one against a Coastal team—or their odds of winning their 7th straight ACC Championship go way down. As for Pitt, they are finally beginning to get respect at a national level, jumping into the rankings this week for the first time this season. If not for a fluke 44-41 home loss to Western Michigan a month ago, Pitt would be undefeated. They won a shootout on the road at Tennessee the week before, so that Western Michigan loss was probably a classic let-down game. The one constant all season for Pitt has been Kenny Pickett and its offense. The Panthers have the No.2 scoring offense in the nation at 48.3 points per game, and the Tigers have the No.2 scoring defense at 12.5 points allowed per game. It’s strength-on-strength with a spot in the ACC Championship on the line for both teams, and it will be the Tigers’ first trip to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers! Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, and the two schools have played 3 times since then, including the 2018 ACC Championship, but somehow the ACC did not schedule Clemson at Pitt for 8 years. Fortunately, it’s still early enough in the season that cold weather should not be a factor, although it might rain. Saturday is the only day in a week without rain in the Pittsburgh forecast, but it’s supposed to be cloudy. So if the forecast is off a little, like it almost always is, we could see a rainy game. I will be on the field for this one, trying to shoot photos, so I’m praying that we get lucky with the weather!
On to the matchup….
Clemson and Pitt have only played 4 times dating back to 1977, with Pitt winning the first two meetings and Clemson winning the last two….Clemson (82-9) is two wins behind Alabama (84-6) for the most since 2015. The Tigers (125) trail only Alabama (133) for the most wins since 2011. They have 7 more than Ohio State. Clemson leads the nation in Power Five wins (88) since 2013. Alabama has 85 and Ohio State has 81 over that span....Clemson has beaten at least 12 Power Five opponents in 4 of the last 6 seasons. In college football history, that feat has only been achieved 4 other times. Alabama, LSU, Georgia and FSU each accomplished it once….The Tigers have won 10 or more games for 10 straight seasons, the third-longest streak in history behind FSU (14) and Alabama (13), which is also an active streak…The Tigers’ streak of 6 straight outright conference titles is tied with Oklahoma’s active streak for the third-longest in history. Oklahoma won 12 in the 40’s and 50’s and BYU won the WAC 7 straight times in the 70’s and 80’s. However, Clemson is the only program to have won 6 straight conference championship games….Clemson has finished in the top-4 of the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons, tied with Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams for the fourth-longest streak in history. FSU did so 13 straight seasons under the late great Bobby Bowden, while USC and Miami have each done so 7 straight seasons….Dabo Swinney has the best active win percentage in the nation at .807. Nick Saban is second at .798….Dabo’s 143 wins are already tied with Steve Spurrier for 6th-most by a coach in his first 15 seasons, but Dabo is only in his 13th full season. He could quite conceivably top Urban Meyer’s record of 165 wins in his first 15 seasons….Dabo is tied for fourth-most games as an ACC head coach….Clemson has been ranked No.1 in the AP Poll in each of the last 6 seasons, which is the third-longest streak of all time behind Alabama (14) and Miami (7). Alabama’s streak is also active….Clemson had by far the longest active streak ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 57 straight weeks before dropping to No.6 because of a pick-six in the opener against now No.2 Georgia. Alabama was second at 21, followed by Georgia and Oklahoma with just 4 each. If Clemson had remained in the AP top 5 until the end of the regular season, it would have surpassed Alabama’s all-time record of 68. Clemson’s current streak of 97 straight weeks in the AP top 10 is tied with Alabama for the longest streak in history behind Miami (137)…Since 2011, Clemson has finished with an equal or higher ranking than its preseason ranking every year except for 2019 and 2020, the only two years the Tigers have been ranked No.1 preseason. The Tigers were ranked No.2 and No.3 in the 2021 preseason polls…
Head Coach Pat Narduzzi took over at Pitt in 2015 after he helped make Michigan State a consistent power as its Defensive Coordinator under Mark Dantonio. Narduzzi has done an outstanding job with the Pitt program, guiding it to the third-most wins in the ACC since 2015, behind only Clemson and Miami. We all remember the mammoth upset in Death Valley on a last-second field goal in 2016, and that was the Tigers’ last loss at home. They have won 31 straight home games since, which is the longest active streak in the nation. The one thing you can usually count on from Narduzzi’s teams is that they are tough and good on defense. Last season, Pitt was tied with Clemson for the most sacks in the nation. The Panthers lost a couple of big-time defensive ends to the NFL, but they are still stout on the defensive line—especially the interior—and they still have a good pass rush with 3.5 sacks per game, which is 8th in the nation. This season, however, it’s Kenny Pickett and the offense that are grabbing all of the headlines for Pitt. Again, Pitt has the No.2 scoring offense in the nation, and Pickett has been named a mid-season first-team All-American by a couple different outlets. This week will really tell the tale about whether Pitt really does have one of the best offenses in the nation because the Tigers arguably have the best defense in the nation, allowing just 12.5 points per game despite the fact that they have played every game without multiple starters this season. Pitt’s schedule has been pretty weak until this point. Their opener was against UMass—the worst program in the nation—and their other games were against New Hampshire, Western Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia Tech and VA Tech. The 52-21 road win at Georgia Tech was impressive. I did not see that coming at all with the way Tech played the Tigers and then steamrolled UNC. And Pitt’s 28-7 win at VA Tech last week was also impressive, although VA Tech has been inconsistent offensively all season, and the Hokies held Pitt to 15 points less than its season average. In fact, both offenses struggled through the first quarter and a half with the score 7-0. Pitt intercepted a pass at the VA Tech 30-yard-line and scored two quick touchdowns after that. Aside from that burst in back-to-back possessions, the Hokies’ defense did a pretty good job stymying the Panthers’ offense. The Tigers’ defense is significantly better than the Hokies’, so we’re going to find out just how good this Pitt offense really is. And the Tigers have gotten the best of Pickett in the last couple meetings. He and the Panthers scored just 17 points against the Tigers last season in a 52-17 loss and 10 points in the 2018 in the 42-10 loss in the ACC Championship. Pickett could easily be in the NFL right now, but after receiving a third or fourth round draft grade, he decided to return and elevate his stock. He has done exactly that and will likely be a first-rounder if he keeps playing at this pace through the second half of the season. He has certainly come a long way since bursting onto the scene as a freshman at the end of 2017, upsetting No.2 Miami in his first career start. Pickett has the third-best quarterback rating in the nation behind Coastal Carolina’s McCall and Ohio State’s freshman CJ Stroud. If Pitt can knock off the Tigers, it will bring the national respect level for the Panthers’ program to a whole new level and put Pickett firmly in the Heisman race. He’s completed 70% of his passes for 322.3 yards per game—good enough for 9th in the nation—with 21 touchdowns and just one interception. He doesn’t run often, but he does have 3 rush TD’s and is very capable of scrambling for first downs.
Pickett has some very talented receivers to throw the ball to in Addison, Mack and Wayne. 6’0, 175-pound sophomore Jordan Addison (#3) leads the team with 9 touchdown catches, and he averages 17.2 yards. However, he had just 5 catches for 62 yards last week at VA Tech and did not score. 6’3, 210-pound junior Jared Wayne (#5) is also a hand full. He averages 15 yards per catch and has one TD this season. 6’2, 190-pound senior Taysir Mack (#11) averages about 3 catches per game for 16.3 yards per catch and has 2 scores this season. Pitt has a dangerous tight end in 6’6, 260-pound senior Lucas Krull (#7). He is second on the team in touchdown catches with 5, averaging almost 3 catches and a TD per game. The one kryptonite for Brent Venables over the years has been when a team has a really good tight end, which has often been the case with both the Tigers’ ACC and non-conference schedule. As I predicted before the BC game, TE Trae Barry hurt the Tigers with several big catches. So watch out for Krull in this one, especially in the red zone.
Pitt’s rushing offense is ranked just No.52 nationally at 172.5 yards per game. The Panthers’ leading back is 5’11, 215-pound sophomore Israel Abanikanda (#2), who averages 5.0 yards per rush and has scored 4 touchdowns this season. He had a big game at VA Tech last week, rushing for 140 yards on 6.7 yards per carry. Vincent Davis (#22) and Rodney Hammond (#32) are a couple quick, diminutive backs with 3 touchdowns apiece this season. Hammond 5.8 yards per rush but has just 32 carries. He missed the VA Tech game last week with an injury and is questionable for Saturday. Offensive Coordinator Mark Whipple and the Panthers don’t use their backs frequently in the passing game.
The Panthers lost several tremendous players on the defensive side of the ball from last season with 5 defenders selected in the NFL draft, and that didn’t include safety Paris Ford. A big reason Pitt was tied with Clemson for the most sacks in the nation last season was their pair of defensive ends, Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver, who were both drafted. They also lost a corner to the NFL, a defensive tackle and both starting safeties. So the Pitt defense is rebuilding to an extent, but they are still outstanding up front. This season, their strength is on the interior at the tackle spots instead of on the edge. However, 6’5, 260-pound junior DE Habakkuk Baldonado (#87) leads the team with 4.5 sacks. He also has a forced fumble and recovery. Sophomore defensive tackle Calijah Kancey (#8) and senior linebacker Phil Campbell have 3 sacks apiece, and 8 other players have contributed to their 3.5 sacks per game, which is 9th in the nation.
The Tigers just can’t seem to get a break this season, unless it’s a broken bone. In over 30 years of following Clemson Football, I cannot recall the Tigers ever suffering so many injuries in half of a season—especially from the top two lines on the depth chart. The latest bombshell came on Friday when it was leaked that Joseph Ngata, the Tigers’ most consistent receiver this season, will miss the Pitt game due to COVID. It blows my mind that head coaches and star players would still be unvaccinated at this point—especially at a big-time program like Clemson that’s competing for a national championship every year! EJ Williams is also out after having his knee scoped, and Frank Ladson is doubtful with a groin, so the Tigers’ already beleaguered offense will be minus three of their four starting receivers. The Tigers are just plain snake-bit, folks. That’s the only way I can describe it. Every game this season, it’s been a couple key starters injured, out for COVID or ejected for targeting. The good news is that future NFL first-round corner Andrew Booth, who missed the Syracuse game last week, should be back, and the Tigers will certainly need him against Kenny Pickett and this Pitt passing attack. I also asked Dabo about RB Will Shipley, who scored 5 touchdowns in his last 3 games before his knee injury, and Dabo said that he looked good in practice and would be a game-time decision. Sophomore Kobe Pace and freshman Phil Mafah have done very well, but it would be a big boost to get Shipley back. The big question is whether a receiver or two will step up with Ngata and Williams out. Ajou Ajou got his first significant playing time at Syracuse last week, so maybe it will be him. Freshman Beaux Collins has shown flashes, but he’s had some bad drops as well, including one for a touchdown at NC State. My hope is that Dabo will move Ross from slot back to his natural boundary position and give freshman Troy Stellato a chance at slot. He will be a great slot receiver for the Tigers next season, but he missed all of camp with a groin injury, and that set him behind. Think of a bigger, faster Hunter Renfrow, and that’s Stellato. He will also be good in the return game eventually.
The other big question offensively is the offensive line, which has been musical chairs all season. The Tigers have had a different starting lineup in 5 of their 6 games, which has prevented them from establishing any continuity and cohesion, and those are essential up front. Matt Bockhorst, of course, started at center for the first time against UGA, but guard is his natural position and where he is most valuable. Mason Trotter was supposed to start at center but had a cast on his hand for the first several weeks of the season. Hunter Rayburn got his first start at center against Boston College and played well, but he missed the Syracuse game due to COVID, so Dabo started Trotter—bad hand and all—for the first time at Cuse. He played reasonably well but had a bad snap that went about 15 yards over DJ’s head. We should see Rayburn and/or Trotter at center this week, which will allow Bockhorst to stay at guard. Hopefully we won’t see any more false starts or bad snaps! Those have been drive-killers all season, just like the dropped balls and bad throws. Speaking of the passing game, can we go one game without a perfectly-thrown pass by DJ not being dropped?! Good grief, I know DJ has made many bad throws this season, but the dropped balls by the receivers have been just as culpable for the Tigers’ offensive struggles. Ngata has probably been the Tigers’ most consistent receiver, but he still dropped a touchdown in each of the last two games. If he had caught those, the Tigers would have been up two scores at the end of the BC and Cuse games with no chance of overtime or a loss! The regular season is half over, and I never thought we’d have yet to see a completely clean game by the offense 6 games in. If they ever do play a clean game, this team isn’t losing to anyone in the ACC.
Don't forget to check HERE about two hours before kickoff for a final player availability report!
This is one of the toughest predictions I’ve had to make in over 6 years of covering the Tigers. Before the Ngata news, I would have given the Tigers about a 70% chance of winning. Now, I would probably drop that to about 40%. All the talk for the past week has been about how great Pickett and Pitt’s offense are and that there is “no way” Clemson can score enough points to beat Pitt. Well, that narrative is pretty short-sighted. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll see that Pitt has run the score up against mostly bad defenses. The one decent defense they faced, VA Tech, held them to 28 points last week. And Western Michigan managed to score 45 points and beat them at their place. Also, I don’t know if Saturday will be any different with mighty Clemson making its first appearance at Heinz Field since Pitt joined the conference, but normally Pitt does not have a good home-field advantage, even when they are ranked. The fan base is a lot like Miami or Georgia Tech—they’re more excited about their pro teams than the college team. It’s also been raining all week and is supposed to rain on Saturday (hopefully not during the game), so that might keep the fans away. I suspect there will be a lot of empty seats in the upper decks and the end zones, but we’ll see.
That being said, Pitt will bring their A game despite the fact that the Tigers are a 3-point underdog—the first time since 2016 that the Tigers haven’t been favored in an ACC game. The Tigers have been favored in 48 straight ACC games and were favored by 3 points early this week, but that quickly changed to favor Pitt by 3. Regardless of that and the fact that the Tigers are comically not ranked in the AP Poll, Pat Narduzzi said that the Tigers are still the “gage of the ACC.” In a way, there might be more pressure on Pitt to win this game because they know that they need to in order to get the nation’s respect. And Pickett knows—after two bad games against Clemson—that he needs to have a great showing against the Tigers’ vaunted defense and Brent Venables to prove to NFL scouts that he has been underrated and is a legitimate first-rounder.
This figures to be yet another nail-biting, one-score game for the Tigers, which would mean all six of their FBS games this season will have been decided by one score. However, the Tigers are a remarkable 31-7 in those games since 2011, which is the best win percentage in the nation. The defense almost always gets the stop it needs—sometimes even two or three times at the end of a game—in order to seal the win. The rare exception this season was the NC State double-overtime game, and that’s because the Tigers’ defense was so exhausted by the end. They were on the field for 40 out of the 60 minutes in regulation, and Baylon Spector played an incredible 96 snaps! The defense will need to force some three-and-outs so it can get some rest and give the offense as many opportunities to score as possible. The defense is amazing in the red zone, but they can’t allow Pitt to chew up clock with long drives. Fortunately, the fact that Pitt passes the ball so much will keep the clock from running.
Given all of the Tigers’ injuries on both sides of the ball and the fact that the offense is still making simple, drive-killing, point-shaving mistakes 6 games in, I will not be surprised at all if Pitt wins this game, and the Panthers may very well go into the ACC Championship Game undefeated in conference. However, I just can’t bet against Dabo, Brent Venables and this defense that has won close game after close game over the years, so I’m taking the Tigers in another thriller.
The Prowl toward a 7th consecutive ACC Title continues…..
CLEMSON 23 Pittsburgh 20
Never miss the latest news from CUTigers!
Join our free email list