Team effort pays off for Pitt football against Clemson


Pete Madia/Pitt Athletics

Linebacker Saleem Brightwell (39) made a game-saving interception and 70-yard return in the fourth quarter of Pitt's 43-42 win against the No. 2 Clemson Tigers. Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams (7) made a touchdown-saving tackle. Courtesy Pete Madia / Pitt Athletics

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

After back-to-back losses, the unranked Pitt football team was an unlikely match for the No. 2 Clemson Tigers this weekend. But in a shocking upset thanks in large part to kicker Chris Blewitt in the final six seconds of the game, the Panthers handed the Tigers their first loss and shook up the College Football Playoff picture.

Clemson is still in position to win the ACC Championship and will likely make it into the big game if it wins the rest of its games. But that doesn’t make the Panthers’ 43-42 win in front of 81,048 raucous orange-and-purple-clad fans in South Carolina’s Death Valley any less miraculous.

“Hey, I’m sorry to do that, but we wanted this one bad,” Pitt running back James Conner said about clouding the playoff picture. “We’ll remember this one forever.”

You could try to pinpoint a single player most responsible for the Panthers’ stunning victory over the previously undefeated Tigers, but that would be doing the rest of the team a disservice.

There were so many key moments Saturday — by various players on numerous plays — and they all deserve to be remembered as catalysts for Pitt’s monumental upset against the Tigers.

Even Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, whose temper has gotten him and the University in heat in recent weeks, was beaming after securing his first win over a legitimate national title contender.

“I couldn’t be happier for our kids. They are the ones that made the plays,” Narduzzi said. “I love those guys. It’s an unbelievable football team.”

After the Panthers marched down the field for an opening-drive touchdown, Clemson’s All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson quickly led the Tigers inside Pitt’s 20-yard line. A game-tying touchdown seemed imminent, but redshirt senior cornerback Ryan Lewis had other plans.

Lewis made a leaping interception in the end zone –– his second of the season –– and both have been critical. His first sealed the Panthers’ 42-39 win over Penn State on Sept. 10.

While the Panthers were mostly incapable of keeping Clemson from scoring, Lewis’ interception provided a huge boost to Pitt’s chances early in the game.

The Tigers would tie the game on their next possession, but quarterback Nathan Peterman came right back with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Conner to give the Panthers a 14-7 lead.

Then, what appeared to be a 14-point Pitt lead turned into a tie game when Clemson running back Wayne Gallman fumbled the ball just as he crossed the goal line on fourth down. Panthers safety Jordan Whitehead picked up the ball and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown, but referees overturned the fumble and ruled it a touchdown for Gallman.

So instead of Pitt holding a 21-7 lead, the Tigers scored again on their next drive, leaving the Panthers trailing 21-14 and desperately needing a score to keep the game within reach.

Pitt’s coaches decided to let Peterman sling the ball down the field, and sling it he did. After a pair of incompletions, Peterman found tight end Scott Orndoff wide open for a 55-yard touchdown pass.

Blewitt, the team’s senior kicker, missed the ensuing extra point, but the Panthers were back within one.

Then, with Pitt trailing by eight late in the game and Clemson threatening to put the game away, the team’s oft-criticized defense decided to rewrite its narrative.

Watson faked a handoff, stepped to his right and fired a pass toward the end zone, but Panthers linebacker Saleem Brightwell undercut the Clemson receiver’s route and snatched the ball out of the air. The redshirt freshman then raced 70 yards down the sideline before being tripped up on a shoestring tackle by Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams.

“I didn’t know [Brightwell] was that fast,” Narduzzi said.

Three plays later, Conner used a vicious stiff arm to power his way into the end zone on a 20-yard touchdown run.

“That was probably the best run I’ve ever seen in my life,” Peterman said.

Pitt failed to convert the two-point conversion, but had cut the deficit to 42-40 with just over five minutes left.

Finally, after picking up a pair of first downs in its next drive, Clemson faced third-and-1 at the Panthers’ 35-yard line with 1:03 left in the game. The Tigers had two chances to clinch the game and keep their perfect season alive by just picking up one more yard.

Pitt’s defense just needed one stop to give Blewitt a chance.

Panthers defensive end Allen Edwards stuffed Gallman on a run up the middle on third down. Then, on the all-or-nothing fourth-and-1, Watson tossed the ball to Gallman, who tried to bounce it outside to the left. The Panthers’ defense swarmed him at the line of scrimmage and senior linebacker Matt Galambos stopped him for no gain.

The Panthers took over with 58 seconds left, down by two, and Peterman led them into field goal range with a perfectly executed six-play, 34-yard drive in less than a minute.

Blewitt took the field with six seconds left in the game and a chance to atone for his earlier missed extra point, but not before Conner pulled him aside and offered some words of encouragement.

The senior then drilled a 48-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 43-42 win they so desperately craved after a season filled with devastating losses.

“We’ve had some tight, tight games, whether it was at Oklahoma State or North Carolina, where we felt we could win it,” Narduzzi said. “We went into the week [saying] we were going to shock the world … our kids believed.”

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