Clemson clobbers Pitt, 42-10, in ACC Championship


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Senior running back Qadree Ollison leaps into the end zone during Saturday night’s 42-10 loss to Clemson.

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

After ruining an opponent’s perfect season for two straight years — first Clemson in 2016 then Miami in 2017 — another upset victory seemed like a possibility for Pitt football, despite entering Saturday night’s ACC Championship game versus No. 2 Clemson as 28-point underdogs.

But after an ugly first five minutes, it quickly became apparent that this was no Cinderella story, and Pitt was drastically overmatched by the undefeated Tigers. In the end, the same weaknesses that plagued the Panthers all season — an anemic passing game and a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot — materialized Saturday night, leading to a discouraging 42-10 loss at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Coming into the contest, it was no secret that Pitt had a one-dimensional offense. Senior running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall carried the Panthers all year, spearheading the nation’s 14th-best rushing attack with 232.2 yards per game. Their production is what led the Panthers to their first ACC title game in program history.

Conversely, Pitt entered Saturday night with the country’s 10th-worst passing game, averaging 152 yards per game in that aspect.

Against Clemson, 152 yards would have been a massive upgrade. Instead, sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for an almost unfathomable eight yards on the night — easily the least of his career. He completed just four of 16 passes while losing a fumble and tossing an interception.

The Panthers also committed eight penalties for 54 yards — including five for 30 yards in the first half — which helped Clemson build a 28-10 lead by halftime. Pitt’s lack of discipline was a problem all season long, with the team entering as the 23rd-most penalized team nationally. Throw in the fact that the Tigers scored a touchdown off each of Pitt’s three turnovers, and it’s no wonder the game turned so ugly so quick.

There was nothing subtle about Clemson’s dominance. In fact, it was evident from the game’s very first play, when star sophomore running back Travis Etienne — elected the ACC Player of the Year earlier this week — took the opening handoff 75 yards for a touchdown, weaving through and torching past the Pitt defense.

Pitt’s offense countered back with the following — incomplete screen pass, rush for loss of one and a sack for a loss of nine, ending with a punt on fourth and 20.

The Panthers’ D managed to force a Clemson three-and-out, but their next offensive possession somehow managed to be worse than the first.

On first down, Pickett completed a pass to Ollison for a loss of four. Pitt followed that up by committing false start and delay of game penalties on back-to-back plays, marching the offense back 10 yards. Next, the team burned a timeout to avoid another delay of game, only to come back out and commit another false start. Without running a single offensive play, the Panthers committed three penalties, backed themselves up 15 yards and burned a timeout, setting up a second and 29.

From there, Clemson’s defense stuffed Hall for just one yard — Pitt’s first positive play of the game. Then on third and 28, Pickett got hit hard while scrambling in the pocket, coughing up the ball to Clemson graduate defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and bringing Pitt’s nightmarish possession to an end. Wilkins returned the fumble 18 yards to the Pitt three yard line.

Etienne punched the ball in from three yards out on the very next play, putting Clemson up 14-0 just six minutes into the game.

But after the two teams traded futile possessions, Pitt finally settled into a groove on its next offensive drive. The Panthers’ vaunted rushing attack marched down the field thanks to a 19-yard rush from junior receiver Maurice Ffrench, a 20-yard run from Hall and another 21-yard gain from Ollison. They eventually stalled out at Clemson’s 19 yard line, but that was close enough for sophomore kicker Alex Kessman to get Pitt on the board with a 37-yard field goal to make it 14-3.

The Panthers’ defense also started to buckle down after allowing Etienne to score twice, forcing Clemson into consecutive three-and-outs on their next two possessions.

Pitt’s offense took over with 11:04 left in the half, facing a short field after a poor Clemson punt. From the 28 yard line, Ollison stiff-armed a defender and took off for a sprint down the right sideline, diving into the end zone for what appeared to be a touchdown. Replay review revealed Ollison stepped out of bounds at the two yard line, but two plays later he leapt over the offensive line and crossed the plane for a touchdown, bringing Pitt within four points, 14-10, after its abysmal start.

Sensing a diminishing deficit, Clemson snapped out of its funk and began to impose its will on the Pitt defense. Etienne, along with junior running back Tavien Feaster, single handedly marched the Tigers downfield, ripping off runs of 45, nine, four, three, four and five yards to move within Pitt’s 10 yard line. From there, first-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw the ball for the first time all drive and connected with sophomore wideout Tee Higgins for a five-yard touchdown to put Clemson back up comfortably, 21-10.

The Panthers retained possession on their own 20 yard line with 1:03 remaining before halftime, facing a decision to either run the clock out or try and score. Head coach Pat Narduzzi, ever the opportunist, kept the offense on the field and elected to go for the latter.

That choice backfired majorly when Pickett, facing pressure in the pocket on third and 10, stepped up and threw an ill-advised pass that ended up directly in the hands of Clemson sophomore cornerback AJ Terrell, who returned the interception 31 yards to the Pitt 10 yard line. On the very next play, Lawrence again found Higgins in the end zone, putting the Tigers up by an authoritative 28-10 margin.

That first half would prove to be the Panthers’ undoing, and it glaringly the team’s two aforementioned weaknesses — a one-dimensional offense and sloppy play — that they struggled with all season long.

With the game essentially decided, the second half went by quickly with little to write home about. Pitt, a ground-based team designed to gain a lead and milk the clock by running the ball, found itself ill-equipped for a comeback. As in blowout losses to Penn State and UCF, the Panthers gained little to no ground after getting down by such a large deficit.

In fact, Pitt’s second half was even worse than its first, with the team rushing for 75 yards, while Pickett somehow underachieved on his first-half five passing yards by throwing for just three in the second. Unable to move the ball at all, the Panthers averaged a paltry 2.9 yards per play in the second half.

Meanwhile, the Tigers tacked on a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter on a one-yard rush from graduate running back Adam Choice.

Leading by 25 points, Clemson began to insert its backups as the game neared a conclusion. First-year quarterback Chase Brice came on in relief for Lawrence and rushed for 28 yards to Pitt’s four yard line. That set up the game’s final touchdown, which came on a four-yard scamper from first-year running back Lyn-J Dixon and put the Tigers up 42-10.

Etienne stood out the most in the final box score, showcasing the skill that made him the conference’s best player by rushing for 156 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. For Pitt, Hall and Ollison did all they could to make up for the struggling Pickett, with the former rushing 14 times for 86 yards and the latter rushing 13 times for 56 yards and the team’s only touchdown. As a team, the Panthers gained a season-low 200 yards. If there was any positive takeaway, their 192 rushing yards marked the most allowed by Clemson all year.

Pitt has one game remaining on its schedule, although they won’t know their opponent until Sunday, Dec. 2, when all bowl game matchups are announced.