Welcome to the ACC Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!
It’s hard to believe we are already here, but the Tigers are 12-0 for the second time in the last four years. This week was quite the contrast from last week, when Dabo celebrated his 49th birthday on Tuesday and brought cupcakes for us at his press conference. As dominant as the Tigers have been over the second half of the season, I guess the media and fan base needed some self-created drama. As most of you know by now, Dabo was acrimonious on our Sunday ACC teleconference, taking issue with the faction of the fan base and a certain website saying that the 21-point win “feels like a loss.” Some on ESPN have blown Dabo’s words out of proportion without knowing any context, speculating on whether Dabo is threatening to go elsewhere. Let me dispel that right now. Dabo was not doing anything of the sort. He was sticking up for his players and coaches and admonishing those who think that a 21-point win over their rival and a 12-0 season isn’t good enough. And I think Dabo was absolutely justified in doing so. On Tuesday, Dabo reiterated his irritation with those sentiments but also reaffirmed his love for Clemson. What this all boils down to is that certain fans and even some in the media have been spoiled by the domination the Tigers have enjoyed this season and have lost perspective. Sure, the defense had some coverage busts and gave up too many big plays last week, but a 21-point win over the Gamecocks is impressive any way you slice it. That South Carolina team had Florida on the ropes in the Swamp late in the game a couple weeks ago. If anything, I think the anomalous performance by the defense was a blessing in disguise because if exposed some mistakes and lack of attention to the details that haven’t been seen since early in the season. It’s hard to improve when you don’t allow a single touchdown in two consecutive games, as the Tigers have not. They were ranked #1 in scoring defense, #1 in yards per play and #2 in total defense coming into the game. I think this game brought them back to earth, and you can bet that Venables was in their faces all week long. For all the criticism of the defense this week, the offense was outstanding. They racked up 744 yards, which was only 16 yards short of the Clemson record set in 1981. They rushed for 351 yards, averaging 6.4 yards per carry and extended the Clemson season record for rushing touchdowns to 42.
Clemson is 0-2 all-time against Pitt, losing in 1977 and again in 2016 en route to the national title….The Tigers are looking to extend their ACC record to 18 titles and an unprecedented fourth straight outright ACC Title. Not even FSU won four outright titles in a row during its run of ACC dominance. The Seminoles are second in ACC Titles with 15….Clemson can join Florida as the only Power Five programs to win four consecutive championship games….A win Saturday night would give the Clemson senior class its 53rd win, matching the current all-time national record held by Alabama. However, the Tide senior class can win its 54th game by beating Georgia on Saturday. If the Tigers go on to win the national title, they will at least tie Alabama for the most wins in a four-year period. The .929 win percentage by the Clemson senior class is a program record….A win Saturday would give the Tigers a win in their last meeting with every ACC school….The Tigers have won 8 straight games in the month of December, dating back to their first ACC Championship Game win over Virginia Tech in 2011….Dabo is going for his 114th win, which would make him 3rd on the all-time list for wins by a head coach while in the ACC, passing Frank Beamer, whose Hokies didn’t join the conference until 2004….The Tigers’ win over the Gamecocks was their 100th win of the decade. Only Alabama and Ohio State have won as many games in this decade….The Tigers have won 7 straight games by 20 points or more, a program record. They have scored 27 points or more in 12 straight games, also a program record….Clemson has won a school-record 28 consecutive Saturday games. That is the longest such streak in the nation….Clemson is 33-2 in its last 35 ACC games…. Clelin Ferrell has 10.5 sacks this season, which is 4th in the Power Five. He is also 3rd in the Power Five for active career sacks....Clemson has 42 rushing touchdowns this season, a program record…. Sophomore Travis Etienne set the school single season record for rushing touchdowns with his two touchdowns against the Gamecocks, giving him 19 this season. Wayne Gallman, James Davis and Lester Brown all had 17…..The Tigers hadn’t allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season prior to the South Carolina game. They also hadn’t allowed an offensive touchdown in their previous two games. They have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 13 of their last 17 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 40 straight games, breaking Artavis Scott’s Clemson record. He needs one touchdown to tie Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac with 16 career TD's, 10th on the all-time Clemson list…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 56 weeks. Next is Georgia at 25….Clemson has been ranked in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff Rankings for 23 consecutive weeks since the Tigers were #1 in the first release of 2015. That is the most weeks in the top 4 behind Alabama....
Pittsburgh has undoubtedly been the surprise team of the ACC this season. When fourth-year head coach Pat Narduzzi—former Michigan State Defensive Coordinator under Mark Dantonio—said at the ACC Kickoff back in July that he hoped to be back in Charlotte for the ACC Championship, there were muffled chuckles from some of the media in the room. Well, he and his Panthers have made fools out of the mockers, winning the Coastal Division for their first-ever appearance in the ACC Championship Game. The Panthers are 6-2 in the ACC and 7-5 overall, but their losses have come against some of the best teams in the nation. They had a rough start to the season, losing 51-6 to rival Penn State and 45-14 at UCF, but those are a couple of top-12 teams, and UCF is still undefeated with the nation’s longest win streak. After that loss at UCF made their record 2-3, they started to turn things around, beating Syracuse 44-37 in overtime and giving undefeated Notre Dame its toughest test of the season, losing 19-14 in South Bend. After that, they rattled off 4 straight wins, including a 52-22 beat down of Virginia Tech. They tripped up last week, however, losing 24-3 at Miami to finish the regular season. That was a revenge game for the Canes because Pittsburgh upset them last year when they were undefeated and ranked #2 in the nation.
Everyone, of course, remembers Pitt upsetting #2 Clemson two years ago in Death Valley before the Tigers went on to win the national title. The heartbreaking 43-42 loss on a last-second field goal was the only blemish on what could have been the first 15-0 season in the modern era. It is also the Tigers’ only loss in Death Valley since 2013! Many of the players on both teams are gone, but many are back, and you can bet that those for Clemson want payback, while those for Pitt have confidence from that game. Senior starting strong safety Dennis Briggs talked about that program-building upset this week:
“I remember that entire week. We were focused on us. I think when we focus on us in general, it's always a better mindset going into the game, focusing on what we're good at, playing within ourselves.
Clemson is a top-tier program. You don't want to get outside of yourself in the things that you do in your preparation or during the game. So throughout that whole week and going into the game, Coach Narduzzi talked to us about focusing on ourselves, playing within ourselves, doing what we do best. I definitely think that aided us when we went out there to play that day. I definitely think it helped us throughout the game.”
The biggest changes for Pitt since the 2016 game, of course, are the losses of quarterback Jay Peterman, running back James Connor and Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada, who is now the interim head coach at Maryland. Canada had a tremendous offensive game plan that day and really kept the Tigers’ defense on their heels the entire game. Games like that have been few and far between for Brent Venables and the Tigers’ defense. They were unable to stop the inside shovel pass, and Pitt’s big tight ends had a field day. Ironically, Deshaun Watson set an ACC record with 580 passing yards, but he also had 3 interceptions, including a big one in the end zone at the end of the game, when a field goal would have put the Tigers up 5 points and likely sealed the victory. Dabo and Venables have both said that the Pitt offense is not as different as you might think despite the change in offensive coordinator.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett is a first-year starter, but his debut was an impressive one. He made his first start in the aforementioned upset of #2 Miami, so he has a lot of moxie to him. The strength of Pitt’s offense has been its running game, so Pickett hasn’t been forced to throw a lot this season. He has only thrown for 1,825 yards but has completed 62% of his passes. He has 12 touchdowns—about half the number for Trevor Lawrence—against 5 interceptions. Pickett doesn’t run much, averaging just 2 yards per carry, but he has 3 rushing touchdowns this season.
The Pitt rushing attack is a two-pronged one, spearheaded by 6’2, 225-pound senior Qadree Ollison (#30) and 5’11, 225-pound senior Darrin Hall (#22). Ollison has rushed for 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He is averaging even better than that, 7.0 yards per carry, against ACC opponents. He only has 11 catches this season for 66 yards and no touchdowns. Hall is just a few carries shy of giving Pitt its first 1,000-yard running back tandem ever. He has 935 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season. Like Ollison, he has been better against ACC competition, averaging 8.1 yards per carry in conference games. Hall has 13 catches for 64 yards. The two of them torched Bud Foster’s defense in that 30-point win over Virginia Tech a few weeks ago. Ollison rushed for 235 yards and 3 touchdowns, while Hall rushed for 186 yards and a touchdown on just 7 carries. Hall had 229 yards and 3 touchdowns the previous week at Virginia. However, it’s been tougher sledding for them in their last two games against Wake Forest and Miami. In those two games combined, Hall averaged just 3.4 yards per carry for 91 yards, and Ollison averaged less than 3 yards per carry for 80 yards and no touchdowns. I asked Pat Narduzzi what he thought those teams did to make it so tough for them to run the ball, and it was basically as simple as Wake and Miami putting some extra hats in the box to stop the run.
Pitt has a big-play wide receiver in 6’2, 195-pound sophomore Mack Taysir (#11). He averages a whopping 23.3 yards per catch this season and 26.3 yards per catch against ACC opponents. He only has one touchdown this season, though. 5’11, 195-pound junior Maurice Ffrench (#2) leads the receiving corps with 6 touchdowns and has 30 catches for 466 yards this season. 5’9, 190-pound senior slot receiver Rafael Araujo-Lopes (#82) has 34 catches for 357 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Defensively, Pitt plays a conventional 4-3-4 defense. Pat Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator under Mark Dantonio at Michigan State, and the Panthers take on the physical mentality of their hard-nosed coach on both sides of the ball. The defense is led by 6’5, 260-pound sophomore DE Rashad Weaver (#17), who has 5.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss this season. The other end, 6’4, 265-pound senior Dewayne Hendrix (#8) has 4 sacks. 6’0, 230-pound senior LB Oluwaseun Idowu (#23) has 8 tackles-for-loss. The Pitt secondary has 9 interceptions this season. Free safety Damar Hamlin (#3) and corner Jason Pinnock (#15) have 2 apiece.
Pitt lost starting center Jimmy Morrissey for the season when he injured his ankle at the end of the Wake game two weeks ago. Left guard Connor Dintino moved over to replace him for the Miami game, and the loss was probably a significant factor in that 24-3 loss at the hands of the Canes and their stout defensive front.
The attention this week was obviously on the defense after allowing the most points since Texas A&M in the second game of the season. The Tigers were #1 in scoring defense and yards per play entering the game. They allowed 600 total yards, and Jake Bentley set a record for most yards by a South Carolina quarterback against Clemson, with 510. Brent Venables credited the Gamecocks with making the plays that were there, but he also emphasized that they were a result of busted coverages, lack of fundamentals and attention to detail. He said his guys missed several “layups” that he expects them to make with ease. However, I believe it could have been the best thing to happen to this team at this stage in the season. It gave the coaches an opportunity to coach the players up and served as a wake-up call for this defense that had been thoroughly dominating team after team for a month and a half. You can bet this defense will be breathing fire and looking for a shutout when they take the field at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday night. It’s important to note that Tre Lamar did not play last week, but he will be fully ready to start against Pitt. Dabo said he could have played last week, but they wanted to hold him just to be safe. In his absence, J.D. Davis got to make his second start in his final game in Death Valley, and he made it count with his first interception of the season—the only turnover for the Tigers in their last 3 games.
The offense is playing at an extremely high level and got off to a much better start against the Gamecocks than it did the previous week against Duke. Trevor Lawrence threw for a career-high 393 yards, which also broke Deshaun Watson’s record for most passing yards against the Gamecocks. Lawrence also had a career-long run of 32 yards, breaking his previous long of 19 yards against Duke the week before. Trevor also converted a big 3rd and 3 with his legs, and he rushed for his first touchdown at Boston College a few weeks ago. I asked Dabo and Tony Elliott if Trevor’s running ability is gradually becoming a bigger part of the offense, and they both agreed with that assessment, saying that it needs to be in order for this offense to be complete. That is really the last piece of the puzzle for this offense to run at full efficiency. Lawrence isn’t going to run the ball a ton like Kelly Bryant did last season, but he needs to be able to do it here and there to keep the defense guessing and to extend plays and drives.
The Tigers set a school record with their 42nd rushing touchdown of the season last week, and Travis Etienne set the Clemson single season record with his 18th and 19th touchdowns. All of the backs were superb last week, combining for 351 rushing yards. The Tigers are #5 in the Power Five in rushing offense, and Etienne leads the Power Five in rushing touchdowns. He has almost 100 carries less than the national leader but just 3 fewer touchdowns. 100 carries is the equivalent of 5 or 6 games! True freshman Lyn-J Dixon is the Tigers’ fourth-string back, but he leads the nation with 10.21 yards per carry and is the only player in the nation with over 10 yards per carry. The coaches inserted Dixon in the first half last week. I believe that’s the first time that’s happened all season, so they are getting to a comfort level with him that they feel they can use him when the game is still in question. That’s good news because he is too talented to be on the sideline!
Speaking of the talented younger players, I am looking forward to seeing if true freshman Darnell Jefferies (#91) sees the field early in the game on Saturday night. He has only played in one game against Louisville because they are redshirting him, so he can play the rest of the season while maintaining his red shirt. He is a big run stuffer, so he might be able to help the Tigers in this game. Be on the lookout for LB Jamie Skalski (#47) as well! Dabo told us earlier this season that they intended to red shirt him. He played at Georgia Tech because Kendall Joseph was out with a groin injury, but Skalski has not played in any other games. On Friday at the ACC Championship Press Conference, I asked Dabo how much he will be able to help them during this post-season run, and I could tell Dabo was excited to have Skalski back—both on defense and special teams.
This time of year is award season, and the Tigers are stock-piling them as usual. Jeff Scott was named a finalist for the Broyles Award last week. If he can win, it will make a hat trick for the Tigers! Tony Elliott won last year and Venables the year before. No other school has even won consecutive Broyles Awards, let alone three in a row. Trevor Lawrence was named a finalist for the Manning Award, and Travis Etienne is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. Lawrence is also a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award. Deshaun Watson wasn’t even a semifinalist for that as a freshman, although he became just the fourth player to win the award twice. Wilkins is a finalist for the Nagurski Award as well as the Bednarik and Outland. Renfrow is a finalist for the Burlsoworth Trophy, an award for the best former walk-on player in his final year of eligibility. Dabo told me that one is near and dear to his heart, as a former walk-on wide receiver himself, and he’s been waiting for a chance to nominate someone for it. Mitch Hyatt was named the ACC Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner, just the 13th two-time recipient of that award. The Tigers also swept the ACC awards this week, winning for Coach of the Year, Overall Player of the Year (Etienne), Offensive Player of the Year (Etienne), Defensive Player of the Year (Ferrell) and Rookie of the Year (Trevor Lawrence). It marks the first time a school has swept the awards since FSU in 1997! There were 18 Tigers named All-ACC this week, which represents 22.2% of the selections from the 14-team league. That’s just illustrative of the level of dominance over the ACC enjoyed by the Tigers this season and also underscores the downfall of Florida State, which won’t be going to a bowl in Willie Taggarts’ first season as head coach. It snaps the Noles’ all-time record of 36 consecutive bowl appearances.
Bank of America Stadium will feel like Death Valley North on Saturday night—the crowd will be decidedly in favor of the Tigers, who will be wearing their White jerseys and Orange britches. It will be a chilly, rainy game though—ideal conditions for Pittsburgh and just the way they like it. These conditions are often an equalizer when there is a substantial disparity in talent like there is between these two teams. Expect Pitt to throw the kitchen sink at the Tigers with multiple trick plays and maybe even a fake on special teams. However, I believe the Tigers’ defense will be seeing red after their performance last week and the criticism they heard in the past several days. No one has more pride than that group, and they will be looking to make a big statement. This is also Pitt’s first ACC Championship Game, and that can often be the end game for teams, patting themselves on the back for having made it this far. Pitt is the fourth different Coastal Champion the Tigers are facing in the last four years—indicative of the remarkable consistency of this Clemson program under Dabo Swinney in a time of parity across the board in college football. The Tigers had at least a two-touchdown lead for most of each of their last three ACC Championship Games, and last year it was a 38-3 blowout over Miami. Barring a catastrophe on offense with 5 or 6 turnovers, I expect this game to be more of the same. The Tigers are just too explosive on offense and too dominant on defense. They have been one of the best teams in the nation all season against the run, and they will force Pickett to throw the ball. The Tigers are tied for #1 in the Power Five in sacks and have averaged almost 5 sacks per game over the last 5 games. I think they will get good pressure on Pickett all night and create a couple turnovers. The Tigers make it 13-0 and punch their ticket for their 4th consecutive College Football Playoff, winning an unprecedented 18 ACC Titles and unprecedented 4 straight outright. Keep your fingers crossed for Miami, Clemson Family! The CFP Selection Show begins at 12:30 ET Sunday on ESPN.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title and College Football Playoff is completed. The Prowl toward a 3rd National Title continues….
CLEMSON 51 Pittsburgh 13