PITTSBURGH — With one close call after another, Clemson has done just enough to hang around in ACC contention as the Tigers get set to begin the back half of their league schedule.
Whether that’s still the case after Saturday will depend on how Clemson handles a major step up in the level of competition it’s seen so far in the conference.
“If we’re going to be the best version of ourselves this year that we can be right now, this is a game that we’ve got to go play our best game in for sure,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Because this will be the biggest challenge to this point.”
The 24th-ranked Tigers (4-2, 3-1 ACC) head to Heinz Field on Saturday to take on No. 23 Pittsburgh (5-1, 2-0) in a matchup of teams that have taken drastically different paths to their win-loss records. With an offense that continues to sputter, Clemson has made living on the edge the norm with the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense bailing the Tigers out more often than not. Clemson has played in four straight one-possession games, winning three of them by a combined 15 points.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is humming offensively behind one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Kenny Pickett, who’s thrown 21 touchdown passes and just one interception. The fifth-year senior leads an offense scoring the second-most points in the FBS (48.3 per game) that also ranks in the top 5 in total offense (530.5 yards) and passing offense (358).
Clemson, an underdog against an ACC opponent for the first time since 2016, hasn’t yet cracked the 20-point mark in regulation against an FBS opponent. Last week against Syracuse, the Tigers went three quarters without a touchdown and survived the Orange thanks to a B.T. Potter field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei had what Swinney called his best game of the season, completing nearly 62% of his passes with a touchdown and no turnovers for a second straight game. But the offense continues to be marred by its own miscues with penalties, drops and missed blocking assignments that fail to even give the offense a chance to get going at times.
Up front, the Tigers have started eight different linemen and three different centers, including Mason Trotter, who’s in line for his second straight start with Hunter Rayburn still out because of COVID-19 protocols. The offense was dealt another major blow this week when leading receiver Joseph Ngata also went into COVID-19 protocols, making him unavailable for Saturday’s game.
It’s another hit to a receiving corps that’s already dealing with injuries. Neither E.J. Williams (knee) or Frank Ladson (groin) played last week, and it’s doubtful Williams suits up against Pitt. The offense will have to find a way to overcome all of that to give themselves a chance to keep up with one of the nation’s more explosive offenses on the other side.
“I don’t know if there’s a number, but we’ve got to consistently score points and we’ve got to make plays,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We’re going to have to make some plays, some big plays. That’s how you beat this defense because they’re structured to make you really, really work if you want to nickel and dime down the field. It’s going to be tough.
“What they give you because they’re so aggressive, the way they’re structured, is the big plays down the field. So we’ve just got to protect well. The quarterback is going to have to be accurate with his throws, and then guys are going to have to go make contested plays.”
Pitt’s defense has been overshadowed by what the Panthers are doing on the other side of the ball. With an aggressive front seven, Pitt is ranked in the top 35 nationally in points allowed (20 per game) and yards allowed (319.3). The Panthers’ 7.2 tackles for loss on average are also 11th-most in the FBS.
“They’re going to force the issue,” Swinney said. “The don’t give you any opportunity to figure things out. They’re not a group that’s going to sit around and wait on anything to happen. They’re going to challenge you.”
Clemson’s defense will have to do its part, too, to keep the Panthers to a manageable number. The Tigers have done more than that against Pitt’s Pickett-led offense before, forcing the quarterback into six turnovers in blowouts wins over Pitt last season and in the ACC championship game back in 2018.
Pressuring Pickett will be key to try to repeat those performances and help Clemson stay afloat in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Tigers enter the weekend two games behind unbeaten Wake Forest and one behind North Carolina State, a team they lost to last month.
With no more room for error, the time is now for the Tigers to put it all together. Doing that against one of the hottest teams in the league on its home field, though? Easier said than done.
“They’re playing with a ton of confidence,” Swinney said of Pitt.
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