Instant Replay: No. 2 Clemson 42, Pittsburgh 10
Second-ranked Clemson defeated Pittsburgh, 42-10, in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday night at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
With the win, the Tigers avenged their regular-season loss to Pittsburgh in 2016, became the first team in ACC history to win four consecutive ACC titles outright and clinched a spot in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight season.
Clemson improved its record to 13-0 on the season, while Pittsburgh fell to 7-6.
Here’s a look back at how the Tigers earned the victory:
Clemson couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start than it did in this one. On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Travis Etienne took a handoff 75 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead less than 15 seconds into the first quarter. A few minutes later, Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons forced Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett to fumble and the loose ball was recovered in the air by Christian Wilkins, who returned it 18 yards to the Pitt 3-yard line. Clemson needed just one play to cash in on a 3-yard rushing touchdown by Etienne for a 14-0 lead at the 9:29 mark of the first quarter.
However, Pitt would fight back with 10 unanswered points to make the score 14-10 midway through the second quarter. Alex Kessman capped a nine-play, 62-yard drive with a 37-yard field goal with 1:46 to play in the first period, then Qadree Ollison scored on a 1-yard rushing touchdown with 7:56 left in the second quarter.
But Clemson answered right back with a seven-play, 75-yard drive in less than three minutes that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence to Tee Higgins, which put the Tigers ahead 21-10 with 4:57 remaining before halftime. Lawrence later hooked up with Higgins again for a 10-yard touchdown in the final seconds of the first half, thanks to an interception and 31-yard return by cornerback A.J. Terrell that set up the Tigers’ offense at Pitt’s 10-yard line. The score gave Clemson a 28-10 lead at the break.
Clemson essentially put the game away early in the fourth quarter, extending its lead to 35-10 on a 1-yard rushing touchdown by Adam Choice 33 seconds into the final frame. The touchdown was set up by a 38-yard pass from Lawrence to Justyn Ross on a flea flicker on the final play of the third quarter.
Freshman Lyn-J Dixon put the finishing touches on the Tigers’ big win, scoring on a 4-yard touchdown run with 3:17 remaining that provided the final score.
What went right?
A week after allowing 35 points and 600 total yards (510 passing) to South Carolina, Clemson’s defense bounced back by giving up just 10 points and 200 total yards, including only 8 yards passing, to Pitt. The Tiger defense was disruptive throughout the game with two sacks, nine tackles for loss, an interception, two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Pittsburgh managed to convert only 3 of its 17 third-down attempts.
Meanwhile, Clemson’s ground attack was potent again. The Tigers compiled 301 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns, led by Etienne, who ran for 156 yards and two scores on 12 carries.
What went wrong?
There isn’t much to complain about if you’re a Clemson fan. If you’re being nitpicky, you’d point out that Clemson went 4-of-12 on third-down and failed to convert on a fourth-down attempt in Pitt territory in the first quarter due to an inaccurate throw by Lawrence. Higgins dropped a pass and the defense yielded a few explosive plays in the running game, while the punting unit had issues at times with a 15-yard punt by Will Spiers, a low snap that Spiers had to scoop up off the ground and a kick-catching interference penalty against T.J. Chase in punt coverage. All in all, though, there wasn’t much that went wrong for the Tigers.
Pittsburgh had the ball, down by just 11 points, with 1:03 left in the first half. Instead of being conservative in the final minute of the second quarter, the Panthers were aggressive and tried to throw the ball, but it backfired. On third-and-10 from Pitt’s 31-yard line, a pass from Pickett was intercepted by Terrell and returned 31 yards to the Pitt 10-yard line. Clemson’s offense took advantage one play later, scoring on a 10-yard pass from Lawrence to Higgins with 25 seconds remaining in the half. Just like that, Pitt’s deficit increased from 11 to 18 points, and it was too much for the Panthers to overcome.