Clemson’s best shot to win starts, ends with Pitt’s QB

Clemson’s best shot to win starts, ends with Pitt’s QB

Football

Clemson’s best shot to win starts, ends with Pitt’s QB

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Wednesday's Thoughts

There is no secret what Clemson’s biggest challenge is on Saturday. It is stopping Kenny Pickett.

The Pitt quarterback is dicing up the Atlantic Coast Conference this year. And because of it, Pickett is being mentioned as a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy and now as the top prospect for next April’s NFL Draft.

It is hard to imagine that this is the same Kenny Pickett, who in the two previous meetings against the Tigers looked like a below average college quarterback.

In the 2018 ACC Championship Game, Pickett completed just 4 of 16 passes for eight yards and was intercepted once in Clemson’s 42-10 victory. On that rain-soaked night in Charlotte, the Panthers star had a quarterback rating of 17.2.

Pickett’s QBR when Pitt came to Death Valley last year was not much better. He recorded an 18.0 QBR in the Tigers’ 52-17 win, as he threw four interceptions while completing 22 of 39 pass attempts. He did not throw for 209 yards and two touchdowns, but he averaged just 5.4 yards per attempt.

But the Kenny Pickett the Tigers have seen the last two years does not exist anymore, at least not through the first six weeks of the college football season.

“This quarterback is special,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He is a sixth-year player. The game is very slow to him. It is very slow. He knows where everybody is. We call it the game within the game, and he is the Master of the game within the game. He really understands all the nuances of their offense, and again, six years of being well-coached will do that when you are talented, and he is super talented.”

Pickett has completed 69.8 percent of his 205 passes thus far for 1,934 yards. His 322.3 yards per game average ranks second in the ACC, while he leads the conference with 21 touchdown passes. He also leads the league in fewest interceptions thrown (1) and in yards per attempt (9.4).

His 181.8 passing efficiency rating, leads the ACC and ranks third nationally.

“He is extremely accurate,” Swinney said. “He has just one interception. He is the highest rated guy in the country, and he is doing just a great job.”

It sounds like the Tigers (4-2, 3-1 ACC) have no shot when they head to Heinz Feld Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh to face the Panthers (5-1, 2-0 ACC).

Not so fast.

Pickett looked very human against Virginia Tech this past Saturday. Though they lost the game, the Hokies held Pickett to a season low 203 passing yards and a low of 5.5 yards per attempt. Though he completed 22 of 37 passes, he had a QBR of just 75.5, his lowest QBR of the season.

What is the key to slowing Pickett down?

“You got to take away space,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “You can do that with man (coverage). You can do that with zone. You got to get in rhythm and not let them get in rhythm.”

Getting pressure to Pickett is also key. From the start last year, the Tigers were in Pickett’s face and moved him off his point, which contributed to his four interceptions.

“He is a rhythm thrower, man. You can’t let this guy sit there and get comfortable. He is just too good,” Swinney said. “He is too good. He knows where everybody is going. He sees everything. He sees every coverage. He is like [James] Skalski playing linebacker. You just don’t fool that guy. He is very confident, and he has really good players around him.”

And he is going to be a problem for Clemson.

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