Clemson’s coaching staff preaches the importance of finishing drives, and finishing games.
Second-ranked Clemson’s offense finished a lot of drives in a shootout, 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday in Death Valley, but it was the drives the Tigers didn’t finish that cost them their chance to clinch the ACC Atlantic division title.
Up by eight points entering the fourth quarter, Clemson had several opportunities to take a two-score lead at the end of the game. But three fourth-quarter possessions in Pittsburgh territory resulted in a punt, an interception and a turnover on downs, respectively.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh answered the interception with a touchdown and the turnover on downs with a game-winning field goal in the waning seconds en route to the upset win.
“We had our opportunities, but at the end of the day we came up short,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We have to own it and correct the mistakes and move forward.”
Clemson’s offense, which produced six touchdowns and a season-high 630 yards, fell one first down short of a win.
Clinging to a two-point lead with 1:11 to go, Clemson (9-1, 6-1 ACC) faced a third-and-1 at Pittsburgh’s 35-yard line. A first down and a couple of kneel-downs would have ended the game, but running back Wayne Gallman was stuffed for no gain on back-to-back carries, including a toss play out of the jumbo package on fourth down.
Pittsburgh (6-4, 3-3) then took possession with 58 seconds remaining and drove 34 yards on six plays to set up a game-winning 48-yard field goal by kicker Chris Blewitt with six seconds left.
“We had two chances, and Pittsburgh stood up and out-physicaled us,” Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “They made the plays, and we didn’t. That’s pretty much it. You have to win the matchup.”
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Clemson looked as if it would pull ahead by two touchdowns and take control of the game when the offense maneuvered to Pittsburgh’s 3-yard line. But on second and goal, a pass from Watson intended for Mike Williams was intercepted by Saleem Brightwell and returned 70 yards to Clemson’s 30. Four plays later, Pitt running back James Conner cut his team’s deficit to 42-40 on a 20-yard touchdown run at the 5:17 mark of the fourth.
“I just laid it across the middle, and the guy made the play,” Watson said of the interception.
It was the second red-zone interception thrown by Watson, who finished with a school-record 52 completions for an ACC-record 580 yards and three touchdowns against three picks.
Clemson’s first drive of the game ended in an interception by Watson after Clemson had moved the ball to Pittsburgh’s 13-yard line.
“At the end of the day, we’re not perfect,” Watson said. “We try to be perfect, but I’m a human being. So, I’m going to make mistakes. It’s a learning lesson. Everything’s not going to be a beauty pageant. I’m going to watch the film and just move on. I don’t really care what people say, regardless if it’s good or bad. I just do what I have to do and handle my business and try to get the W.”
Saturday’s game marked just the second time in program history that the Tigers lost (90-2-1) when gaining at least 500 yards.
Clemson has been no stranger to turnovers, short-yardage woes and missed opportunities in the red zone this season, which had seen Clemson win five games decided by seven points or less prior to Saturday’s outcome.
However, after surviving several scares, Clemson’s luck ran out.
“Any time you make mistakes, you are playing with fire,” Clemson center Jay Guillermo said. “So, I will not say right now is that one special time. They are just a good football team that executed on our mistakes and made less mistakes than we did. That is all it is to it.
“Our plan to win is to have less mistakes and make less penalties, and we did not do that. Once again, hats off to them. They made us make mistakes.”