When Pitt came into Clemson two years ago and beat the Tigers on a last-second field goal, Dabo Swinney said the Panthers “stuck it to them.”
He was right. Pitt held the Tigers to 70 rushing yards and forced three turnovers, all three in the red zone. It was a disappointing moment for Clemson, and the only loss the Tigers have experienced at home since 2013.
“For us, I believe it was a lot like the Syracuse game was this year,” wide receiver Hunter Renfrow said. “They came into our place and kind of took it to us really. We played well I feel offensively. But it’s a team game. They stuck it to us. Kind of like Syracuse this year. Syracuse took it to us. We were just fortunate to win this year.”
Clemson (12-0) rallied from 10-points down in the fourth quarter to beat the Orange and they did it with a third-string quarterback in Chase Brice. They also did it with running back Travis Etienne.
The ACC Player of the Year ran for a career-high 203 yards and scored three touchdowns, including the game winner with 41 seconds to play.
As Renfrow said, the Tigers were fortunate to come out of the game with a win. It’s something he knows they cannot afford to do on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte when they face Pitt in the ACC Championship Game (8 p.m./ESPN).
“I think those two games were similar from that aspect,” he said. “Coming down the stretch here, we were seeing how their division was shaking up. We were seeing that Pitt might win it. Us seniors especially were looking forward to kind of getting a rematch against them.”
Pitt has been known as the Giant Killer in college football. In 2002 it beat No. 3 Virginia Tech and a year later took out a No. 5 Hokies’ team.
In 2007, at the end of the regular season, the Panthers beat rival and second-ranked West Virginia, preventing the Mountaineers from playing for a national championship.
Of course, two years ago they stunned everyone in the country by beating No. 2 Clemson and then last year they knocked off Miami when it was ranked No. 2 and undefeated in the CFP rankings.
“They just came in here and outplayed us on that day,” Swinney said. “Man, their quarterback had a heck of a game. I just remember it was a million yards in the game. We couldn’t really stop them. We had some turnovers. They just outplayed us that way. It was a great win for them.”
It turned out not be a bad loss for Clemson. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams also lost that afternoon, which allowed the Tigers to stay in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff ranking.
“We were very fortunate,” Swinney said. “If I remember correctly, it seemed like everybody lost on that day. Had that not happened, we might have been knocked out of the playoff. So, we were kind of lucky that we still had an opportunity after we lost that game.”
The Tigers took advantage of it, too. Clemson won its last five games, including a win over Alabama in the national championship game.
“Really the team responded. That’s really all you can do,” Swinney said. “It’s hard to be undefeated. When you do lose, how do you respond? I thought our team responded well. We literally played our best football from that point on.”
Though they did not lose to rival South Carolina last Saturday, Swinney is hopeful his team can respond from its mistakes, especially on the defensive end. Like the Pitt game two years ago, the defense played its worst game of the year, allowing 600 yards and 35 points.
Quarterback Jake Bentley threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns for the Gamecocks. If it was not for the offense putting up 56 points, the Tigers might already be knocked out of the playoff.
“Offensively, it was probably our best performance of the year, and defensively our worst performance of the year. But it’s a team game,” Swinney said. “There’s been a lot of games where if our defense doesn’t get the stops, play the way they played, maybe the offense was slow to get going, whatever, we’re probably not 12-0.
“The defense needed our offense (last Saturday). Again, we played our worst game defensively and still won by three touchdowns. I think that speaks to the strength of our team.”