CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – Clemson will take to the field for the first time in three weeks on Saturday when they face off against Pittsburgh at Memorial Stadium.
Since the game against Florida State was postponed, not much has changed for the Tigers. They get Trevor Lawrence back after he missed two games, and with last week’s postponement that adds two more weeks off for the junior quarterback. One thing is for sure: Clemson will be well rested ahead of Saturday’s tilt against Pittsburgh.
For an in depth look at how the team stacked up heading into the Florida State, check out last week’s preview article here.
Head Coach Dabo Swinney has not minced words about his dissatisfaction with last week’s postponement, and is chomping at the bit to return to action. And there will be some added motivation for the seniors who will be playing their final game in Death Valley. Senior receiver Amari Rodgers talked about the emotions ahead of the game:
Clemson’s offense gets one if toughest, if not their most difficult matchup of the season this week going up against the Pitt defense.
Through eight games, Pittsburgh is allowing the second-fewest yards rushing per game (78.8), opposing offenses are converting just 35% of third downs, and their defensive pass efficiency ranks 28th in the FBS. Not to mention they lead all of college football in sacks. In short, the Panthers don’t give up easy yards or scores. And they’ve given up an average of just over 22 points per game (24th in college football).
After starting out the season 3-0, Pitt went on a four-game losing streak. Among those losses were defeats by No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 13 Miami, as well as a one-point loss to Boston College. As far as the common matchups go Clemson narrowly beat BC, 34-28 earlier this year. They convincingly beat Syracuse and Miami. And their one loss came at the hands of the Fighting Irish. It’s important to note, however, that two of the Panthers’ losses have been by a single point.
But following their four-game skid, Pittsburgh is coming off of two straight wins, looking to extend their win streak to three this Saturday.
The Tigers have gone against some opportunistic defenses this season as far as turnovers are concerned, and they’ll get another one in Pittsburgh this weekend. The Panthers rank 11th in takeaways with 14; the same as Clemson.
But let’s start with the offense. Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett (#8) has been exceptional when he’s on the field. In the two games he missed, against Miami and Notre Dame, the offense struggled mightily combining for a total of just 22 points. That goes to show their 5-4 record isn’t really indicative of their capability. They’re a completely different team with Pickett on the field. This season he’s completed over 63% of his passes for 2,003 yards and ten touchdowns to just four interceptions. He’s very efficient with the football, and isn’t afraid to take the deep shot downfield. Pickett is mobile as well, providing a dual-threat on any given play. He moves within the pocket well, but also routinely extends plays rolling out or tucking it and running. He has 140 yards on the ground this year and seven touchdowns.
Jordan Addison (#3) and D.J. Turner (#7) are the primary targets for Pickett. They’re both highly athletic receivers, with Addison pacing the group with a 52-611-3 line. Turner has added 320 yards on 34 catches for two scores. Both are solid route runners that adjust well when plays break down.
Sophomore Vincent Davis (#22) is the team’s primary runner with A.J. Davis (#21) getting complementary carries as well. Vincent Davis has very good vision and burst to routinely break into the second level. He has some great runs on tape this season, but overall it’s been tough for this Panthers backfield to get much room. The Davis’ have combined for six rushing touchdowns this season and are averaging a poor 3.7 yards per carry. As a whole, the team is only amounting to slightly over one hundred yards per game on the ground, which puts them at 114th in the FBS.
Pitt presents one of college football’s best defensive lines, which is the catalyst for the unit’s success. It starts with senior defensive ends, and NFL prospects, Rashad Weaver (#17) and Patrick Jones II (#91). Both are 6’5”, roughly 260 pounds, and nearly unblockable. Jones leads the team with an impressive eight sacks this season, and adds 32 total tackles with 10.5 for loss. Weaver has contributed 5.5 sacks this season to go along with 12 tackles for loss. It’s a dominant outside duo that sets the tone for their run defense and pass pressure.
SirVocea Dennis (#32) stands out among the linebackers. He’s routinely in the backfield and leads the team in tackles for loss (13). They like to blitz their linebackers and defensive backs as well, utilizing stunts/twists to throw off opposing offensive lines. Dennis is a vital part of that, and has four sacks this season. Phil Campbell III (#24) is used in this was as well, typically as a hybrid in the defense. He has 4.5 sacks. They get after the quarterback better than any team in college football, leading the FBS with 38 sacks.
On the back end they can be vulnerable to the big play, but because of the pressure often created by the front seven the secondary has been able to capitalize on errant throws this season. They’re a physical bunch as well, sound tacklers that are good at jamming receivers. But if wideouts can create some space, the Panthers’ DB’s have struggled to keep pace deep down field. Senior free safety Damar Hamlin (#3) sticks out. He’s in on nearly every play and is combative on 50/50 balls.
The Panthers have a quality component at every level, and will surely present a big challenge to the Tigers.
This will be a big test for the Clemson offensive line. Going up against the best team at bringing down the quarterback will require a lot of attention from everyone along the line. And Travis Etienne will be relied upon in blitz pick-up as well since they like to bring guys from different spots.
Trevor Lawrence will need to get the ball out of his hands quickly to stymie the pass rush, and give the receivers a chance to get some yards after the catch. Avoiding mistakes will be crucial to a victory as Pitt has shown it will take advantage. And if Pickett gets the ball on a short field, he’s been able to capitalize.
The Clemson pass rush will need to get consistent pressure on Pickett. And with as poor as Pitt’s run game has been, Clemson can benefit from focusing primarily on the senior QB. The Tigers enter as 24-point favorites, but for what it’s worth that’s one of their lower lines this season.