ACC’s two best running backs will be on display Saturday in the championship game
Two of the league’s best running backs will get the opportunity to showcase their talents in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Clemson’s Travis Etienne, the ACC Player of the Year, leads the conference with 1,307 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. Pittsburgh’s Qadree Ollison is second in the league with 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’m very excited for this game, just to have two of the best rushing offenses in the ACC, just going out there and being able to showcase that talent,” Etienne said.
Etienne is coming off his sixth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. The sophomore rushed for 150 yards and scored two touchdowns on 28 carries in second-ranked Clemson’s win over rival South Carolina last Saturday. The 28 carries were a season-high for Etienne, who the Tigers want to lean on more as they get into the postseason.
The Tigers (12-0) will need Etienne against Pitt. Two years ago, the Panthers came into Death Valley and shutdown Clemson’s running game. The Tigers rushed for just 70 yards, which played a big role in why Pitt left Clemson with a 43-42 victory.
Clemson had a chance to lock the game up late in the fourth quarter when they went for a fourth-and-one on Pitts side of the field. However, the Panthers stoned running back Wayne Gallman for no gain. They then took over on downs and drove for the game-winning field goal.
“They’re going to be a tough team, very physical,” Etienne said. “We’re going to have to bring our A game, be ready to play each and every play.”
This year, Pitt (7-5) ranks ninth in the ACC against the run, allowing 174.3 yards per game. They’re giving up 4.7 yards per carry, which also ranks ninth in the league.
However, Etienne says he still has to be ready for a Pitt defense that is going to want to shut him down.
“Their linebackers, to me, are very physical, bringing it every play,” he said.
The Tigers are going to want to shut Ollison down, too, and put the ball in the hands of sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett. When Ollison and fellow running back Darrin Hall get things going in the running game, the Panthers become very hard to beat.
Pitt rushed for 484 yards against Duke on Oct. 27 and then rushed for 492 against Virginia Tech on Nov. 11. In both cases, the Panthers scored over 50 points.
Hall rushed for 229 yards and scored three touchdowns in a win at Virginia on Nov. 2. He also ran for 186 yards the next week vs. Virginia Tech on just seven carries.
Ollison had four 100-yard rushing games this season, including 235 against Virginia Tech and 192 against Syracuse on Oct. 6.
“I’m at the point where I’m a senior, I’m an older guy, so I understand every run isn’t going to go for 50 yards,” Ollison said. “It’s those tough four-yard runs, five-yard runs that turn into 15-yard runs, 30-yard runs, so on and so forth. Really being patient, trusting your reads, not trying to look for too much.
“Something we say, ‘don’t look for too much,’ just take what the defense gives you and just take what’s there. Never try to do too much because when you try to look for too much, you try to do too much, you end up missing something and not being good, then you’ll be kicking yourself watching the film the next day.”
The Panthers were kicking themselves last week as Miami’s front four limited them to a season-low 69 rushing yards. Pitt averaged just 1.8 yards per carry. Ollison was held to a season-low 28 yards on nine carries.
It’s something the Panthers will have to fix fast as they get ready for a Clemson defense that leads the league in rushing defense, allowing just 84.6 yards per game and 2.2 yards per carry.
Seven times this year the Tigers—led by their front four in Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant—have held their opposition under 100 yards, including four times in the last five weeks.
No team has rushed for more than 175 yards against the Tigers all season and those yards came after Clemson built a 42-0 lead at Wake Forest.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s a great opportunity for our offensive line. It’s a great opportunity for our tight ends to go out there and really show the world, show the country that we’re good up front, as well,” Ollison said. “They have a great defensive line, as everyone knows. But I think it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to go out there and put on display what we have, as well, accepting that challenge of playing against such a good front.
“I think we have a great offensive line, as well, just as great as their defensive line is.”