As the third-ranked Clemson Tigers prepare for an ACC battle with Pittsburgh this weekend, the Panthers are doing the same up North.
Recent history between the two programs has been interesting and rather short. With a small sample size of games, the teams have only played each other three times in the long football history of both schools. While Clemson had Pitt’s number in the ACC championship in 2018, the Panthers handed the Tigers their only loss in 2016, on the teams senior day of all games.
Now locked in to play their fourth ever matchup, Pittsburgh has another opportunity to defeat Clemson on senior day.
On Wednesday, it is clear the Panthers and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple are preparing for their most important matchup of the season.
“They’re right there with Notre Dame’s defense,” Whipple said. “They blitz a lot more than them though, they’re kind of like Miami in that way. They’ve got really good talent and there’s really no weaknesses anywhere. There’s not a guy you can pinpoint, they play a lot of players.”
“We’ve got to play our best game and have to to build off of not only our last week, but our last two. We have to take care of the ball, make first downs and try to tire them out. They’ve got a lot of guys and we’re really just worried about our guys executing. We’re on the road and it won’t be 80,000 there but I’m sure there will be a little more noise. Clemson gives you a bunch of problems.”
Figuring out the Clemson defense is a tricky assignment for any coach as the group has consistently been one of the top defenses in the country over the past few years under Brent Venables. Ranking 12th in total defense, the Panthers will have to cook up some creative ways to create vulnerable spots to attack.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh had a couple of star players speak about the Tigers and what their offense brings to the table. One of the teams’ top corners, Damar Hamlin, had a few things to say about Clemson being he was the only player who played in their 2016 upset win at Death Valley.
“I just remember the atmosphere to this day,” he said. “To this day that was probably one of the best stadiums I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere from the fans, it’s just a winning culture. I remember the week of practice we had was just a good, smooth and relaxed week of practice where we were all just locked in. I remember driving into the stadium. We had a good feeling.”
While it was a great moment for the Pittsburgh team and their fans, it is far in the past for the Panthers. Four years removed from the previous win, things are always different in time.
“Different year, different team and different players,” said the cornerback. “We’ve been having a good week of practice. As a defense we’ve been flying around the ball and executing in practice. We’re just going to go out there and try and get the win.”
On the defensive line, Pittsburgh’s top performer this season, Patrick Jones II was redshirted in 2016 and didn’t truly experience a win against Clemson. The young defensive end who is second in the NCAA sacks did, however, participate in the team’s 42-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC championship in 2018.
Such a big loss has stuck in the head of Jones and many Pitt players.
“What happened in that championship game is something I will never forget,” said Jones. “That’s definitely a taste we’re going to remember and we’re going to come into this game with a chip on our shoulder.”
Between having to stop Travis Etienne on the ground or Trevor Lawrence through the air, the Pitt defense has a tough road ahead of them Saturday. The two explosive All-Americans are the major factors in this Clemson offense.
“I remember going against Lawrence,” Jones said. “He had a great pocket presence. He’s definitely gotten better since the last time we saw him. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in college football and there has definitely been growth since the last time we saw him.”
It is safe to say while Lawrence, Etienne and the Tigers have gotten better since the last time they faced, Jones, Hamlin and the Panthers have as well. The Panthers will face Clemson Saturday at Death Valley for the Tigers senior day.