Facing a critical fourth-and-1 situation in the final moments of its game against Pittsburgh on Saturday, second-ranked Clemson’s offense went back to what had worked all season to that point.
With the ball at Pittsburgh’s 35-yard line and 1:02 on the clock in the fourth quarter, Clemson brought in its jumbo package featuring five offensive linemen, two tight ends and Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence lined up a few yards behind the tight end and left guard, respectively.
After the ball was snapped, Deshaun Watson pitched it to Wayne Gallman on the left side. But penetration by Pittsburgh beat Clemson’s push up front, and Gallman was stopped for no gain.
So, Pittsburgh took over at its own 35-yard line with 58 seconds left. Six plays later, Pittsburgh was at Clemson’s 30-yard line setting up for a game-winning field goal attempt.
Chris Blewitt then kicked a perfect 48-yard field goal through the uprights with six seconds left, lifting the Panthers to an upset, 43-42 victory on the road.
“We talked about it on third down. If we didn’t get it, we could have punted it and pinned them deep, but we’ve lived the vat all year and made some big plays,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of his decision to go for it on fourth down. “But we didn’t get it done, so that’s on me. Simple as that. We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and didn’t do it.”
Late in the first quarter on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, Clemson lined up in the same jumbo formation, and Gallman plowed ahead behind Wilkins and Lawrence for a touchdown that tied the game at 14-14.
Two weeks earlier in the fourth quarter at Florida State, Clemson sent in the jumbo package on fourth and 1 from Florida State’s 43-yard line before running the same toss play to Gallman, who picked up 11 yards to help set up an important field goal in Clemson’s eventual win.
And two weeks before that in overtime against N.C. State, Clemson successfully converted an essential fourth down out of the jumbo package with a C.J. Fuller run up the middle that led to Watson’s game-winning touchdown pass.
Thus, the Tigers went back to their bread and butter in a similar scenario against Pittsburgh. A first down and a couple of kneel downs would have ended the game, but Clemson simply couldn’t get the job done.
“We did some of the stuff that we’ve done all year. That heavy set we were in, I think we were five-for-five all year up until that point of getting what we needed,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “Have to give them credit. They were ready. Earlier in the game, we went with the downhill run, so we tried to set it up and go outside, and they made the play and we didn’t.”
“We went with what’s kind of got us here, and unfortunately, we’re not able to do it one more time.”
Prior to the fourth-down attempt, Gallman was also stuffed for no gain on a third-down run.
Overall, Clemson passed 70 times for 580 yards while running it 25 times for just 50 yards.
Pittsburgh’s scheme consistently placed a couple of extra players in the box to defend the run, making it difficult for Gallman to find holes all game.
“They are built to stop the run,” Clemson center Jay Guillermo said. “Give credit to those guys. They were stout. They were big, but they were not huge. Those dudes are strong and are a really good football team. It’s like I said all week. They are a really good football team, and they showed it.”
The saying that football is a game of inches held true on Saturday. Had Clemson picked up the 36 inches it needed for one yard, the outcome would have been entirely different.
“It was just a situation where we had success on that play in a similar situation and we scored a touchdown out of the same set when we ran the ball inside, and so we thought they’d be prepared for that,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said after the game. “And then again, you’d be questioned if you throw it on fourth-and-1, why you didn’t run it.
“So, we put our best package out there that we thought was going to give us an opportunity to be successful, and we came up short.”