Panthers will be no match for playoff-bound Tigers

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Panthers will be no match for playoff-bound Tigers

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, pictured here against Virginia Tech , led all players with 136 passing yards in Pitt's Sun Bowl loss to Stanford.

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, pictured here against Virginia Tech , led all players with 136 passing yards in Pitt's Sun Bowl loss to Stanford.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, pictured here against Virginia Tech , led all players with 136 passing yards in Pitt's Sun Bowl loss to Stanford.

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Knox Coulter | Staff Photographer

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, pictured here against Virginia Tech , led all players with 136 passing yards in Pitt's Sun Bowl loss to Stanford.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

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Head coach Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt Panthers (7-5, 6-2 ACC) will travel to Charlotte, N.C., this weekend to face off against the powerhouse No. 2 Clemson Tigers (12-0, 8-0 ACC) in the ACC Championship game. The Panthers are making their first appearance since entering the ACC in 2013, while Clemson will play for its fourth straight ACC title and fifth overall under head coach Dabo Swinney.

This game — which will kickoff 8 p.m. Saturday and be broadcast live on ABC — could mean revenge for Swinney, as the Panthers were the lone team to defeat the national champion Tigers two seasons ago. On the other hand, Pitt would almost certainly ruin Clemson’s chances at making the College Football Playoff with a win.

While Clemson is clearly the far superior football team, the Panthers will undoubtedly give the Tigers their toughest contest so far. Pitt showed that it has what it takes to compete with the best of them when it came up just short of No. 3 Notre Dame earlier this season. The stakes of Saturday’s game will only add more fuel to the fire that this team possesses.

Pitt also has seniors on both sides of the ball — almost all significant contributors — who will play in their penultimate football game as a Panther. Tackle Alex Bookser and safety Dennis Briggs are both captains and the tailback tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall will look to bounce back after quiet games against Miami last week. There’s no doubt the seniors, and everyone else, are going to leave their hearts and souls on that field Saturday and it’s going to take a lot of that keep up with the Tigers.

Swinney has had his squad playing lights out across the board for yet another season. Clemson comes in at No. 3 in the FBS in total offense and at No. 7 in total defense. This poses a problem, as the Panther defense was unable to contain UCF’s No. 5 ranked offense, while the offense could get nothing going against Miami’s No. 2 defense.

The absurd play that has led to these rankings for Clemson has allowed the Tigers to dismantle almost every team in their path. The lone exceptions were Texas A&M and Syracuse — a team the Panthers took down in their Homecoming game in what seemed like a turning point for Pitt’s season. However, the Orange’s ability to compete was enabled by Clemson’s star first-year QB Trevor Lawrence leaving the game due to injury.

Pitt’s strong suit is its run game, yet the Tigers keep that in check. Clemson allows fewer than 100 yards a game on the ground on average, meaning sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett will have to make some big plays to keep his team in the game.

This will be tough — not only do the Tigers have a stellar defense, but redshirt sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey was injured in the Wake Forest game and is out for the season. His absence was evident, as the Panthers rushed for only 69 yards and Pickett took six sacks against Miami. Clemson’s defense presents an equally — if not more — tough task for offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s unit.

Pitt’s offense will have to play a complete game to have a shot at winning. Hall and Ollison need to make the most of every carry against a stout run defense, while Pickett needs to play like he did against Wake Forest. Even a minimal number of drops, sacks and turnovers will sink the Panthers’ shot at an ACC title.

Meanwhile, Randy Bates’ defense will face a Clemson offense that has fired on all cylinders the entire season. The Tigers average 45.5 points per game and have eclipsed 50 points a third of their games. Swinney’s offense poses a threat on the ground and through the air thanks to an all-star cast of studs.

Sophomore tailback Travis Etienne leads the charge for Clemson out of the backfield. Etienne is the only player in the ACC with more rushing yards than Ollison, leading the conference with 1,307 yards. The sophomore has scored 19 touchdowns while averaging an eye-popping eight yards a carry.

When Etienne isn’t carrying the bulk of the load, Lawrence is making teams pay with his arm. The first-year was one of the most anticipated players heading into this NCAA season and has been labeled a “generational talent.”

Lawrence shattered records in high school held by former Clemson QB and national champion Deshaun Watson, then went on to take the starting job for the Tigers from senior Kelly Bryant several games into this year.

This week, even Narduzzi went as far as predicting Lawrence to be a future first round, or even first overall, draft pick.

It’s clear that Lawrence has lived up to the hype. He’s thrown for 2,488 yards at a 66 percent completion clip. The first-year’s touchdown-interception ratio stands at 22-4 with a pair of four-touchdown games sprinkled in. Lawrence leads the ACC with a 156.8 QB rating and his touchdown passes are tied for the conference lead.

It’s quite obvious that the Panther defense will have its hands full, but there’s no reason not to expect a solid outing. Pitt’s defense played arguably its best game of the year against No. 3 Notre Dame and was the sole reason the game was even close. The defense has come a long way this season and isn’t going to revert back to their origins in a game of this magnitude.

No one has truly shut down the Tiger offense thus far this season and it’s unrealistic to expect Pitt to buck the trend. But the defense doesn’t have to dominate to keep the game in reach. Force some punts, get a few sacks, maybe create a turnover or two and at least give the offense a chance to do its thing — that’s what any reasonable person would ask.

Seniors at every position on defense are going to be the determining factor. From defensive end Dewayne Hendrix up front, to linebackers Seun Idowu and Elijah Zeise, to Briggs and corner Phillipie Motley, these guys are going to give Clemson a fight no matter the outcome.

Prediction

Clemson: 42    Pitt: 24

It’s going to be incredibly tough for this team to repeat the 2016 team’s historic upset. That Pitt team caught Clemson off guard, something that won’t happen this time around. The Panthers are the Coastal champs and have surely earned the Tigers’ respect. Clemson simply has the upper hand in all aspects — a tough run defense to combat Ollison and Hall and a future pro to pick apart the secondary. However, this team has shown it has heart and won’t go down easy. The Panthers keep things interesting for a while in this one and score some points along the way, but Clemson’s talent proves too much and earns the Tigers their fourth straight ACC title while securing a spot in the CFP.

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