When the players walked into the weight room Tuesday morning for workouts, there was something different greeting them at the door.
Sitting on top of an equipment box with a yellow caution sign that says, “Championship Work Ahead” was a Pitt helmet. The message to the Clemson players was very subtle without having to say a word.
Two years ago, Pittsburgh walked into Death Valley as 21-point underdogs and stunned second-ranked Clemson with a 43-42 victory. Chris Blewitt made a 48-yard field goal with six seconds to play for the game-winning kick.
“It was a crazy game. There were a lot of opportunities to win the game,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
However, the Tigers (12-0) did not capitalize on those opportunities and suffered its only loss in the last four years at home.
One of the opportunities Clemson had was a fourth-and-one play on the Panthers’ side of the field late in the game. All they had to do was get the first down and the game was over.
That did not happen.
Wayne Gallman was stopped short of the first down. Pitt took over on downs and drove for the game-winning field goal.
“Every game, it comes down to who is going to win in the trenches,” left tackle Mitch Hyatt said. “We just have to win that match up on both the offensive and defensive side.”
So here the Tigers are, two years later facing Pitt again. They are once again No. 2 in the country and are a heavy favorite – a 23.5-point favorite this time around. However, this time it is not in the regular season. This meeting is in the ACC Championship Game with a berth in the College Football Playoff at stake.
“It would be nice to get that win,” Hyatt said. “That is the only team we have not beat in the ACC since I have been here, and I think the seniors. It would be fun to get that win back and win another championship.”
Swinney knows his team is excited about playing the Panthers (7-5) because he knows they remember what happened on November 12, 2016, very well.
“A lot of those guys are back,” Swinney said about the Panthers. “I think have at least six guys from that defense that were in that game, so they will be confident playing us and they should because they beat us and they beat us at our place.
“They have already proved that it can be done so our guys will be excited to play.”
Pitt racked up 464 total yards on the Tigers that afternoon with now Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Nathan Peterman threw for 308 yards and five touchdowns.
“We played awful on defense,” Swinney said. “I don’t remember what the total yards were, but it was a bunch of yards, up and down the field. Even with that, we had a chance.”
The Tigers gained 650 yards, but they turned the football over three times and ran for just 70 yards.
“Deshaun (Watson) threw for 580 yards, but he threw three interceptions,” Swinney recalled. “We had some bad turnovers and red zone turnovers, but even with that we had a chance to win the game on fourth-and-one and we don’t get it. Then they kick the field goal to win. But they outplayed us.
“But that team went on to win the national championship and beat a pretty good team to win the national championship. We got better from it.”