Three takeaways from Pitt vs Clemson


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates the team’s victory over Pitt with the ACC Championship trophy in his hand.

By Nick Carlisano, Staff Writer

Pitt football fell 42-10 to the No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship game Saturday night. While an appearance in the title game was welcome, it was evident that there are still areas where this team needs improvement to have success in its bowl game. The Panthers were held back by several factors, but there were a few bright spots to build on for the season finale and next year. Here are three takeaways from Pitt’s performance against Clemson.

Discipline is an issue

Pitt was penalized eight times for 54 yards in the ACC title game. Penalties have been a major problem for this team throughout the year, some games more than others, and this was one of those games. The nature of the penalties along with the number are particularly concerning.

On Pitt’s second drive of the game, a ridiculously puzzling sequence unfolded. The Panthers were called for a false start, then couldn’t get the next play off in time and were called for a delay of game. Head coach Pat Narduzzi then called a timeout. After regrouping, the Panthers committed another false start penalty, creating an impossible third-and-28 situation. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett fumbled on the ensuing play, setting up Clemson’s second touchdown.

Shortly after, an impressive defensive sequence gave the offense a great field position. A drive that began to pick up steam lost its momentum with a third false start. The penalty turned a second-and-1 into a second-and-6 — the Panthers lost an opportunity at an easy first down and punted two plays later.

Narduzzi also called an ill-advised timeout to start the third quarter, likely to avoid a fourth false start. Had the game been close, that would have been a terrible waste of a timeout that could have been crucial down the stretch. Either way, the offense should have been more prepared coming out of the break.

This Pitt team lacks discipline and it starts with Narduzzi and trickles down to the players. He’ll have to get things together for the bowl game. Self-inflicted errors alone didn’t lose the game for Pitt against an obviously superior Clemson team, but in a closer contest, penalties and timeout management often make the difference.

Pitt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde defense

The Panther defense was much maligned for the first half of the season. Poor play led to a bad loss to UNC and blowouts at the hands of Penn State and UCF.

But the defense’s habit of giving up huge plays overshadowed the fact that it had the ability to hold teams in check. That potential blossomed in the second half of the year against Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Both sides of the coin were on display against Clemson.

Clemson sophomore running back Travis Etienne took it to the house for 75 yards on the very first play of the game. A 45-yard Etienne rush later put the Tigers in Panther territory, setting up their third touchdown. The ACC Player of the Year was running wild and it looked like things would get out of hand quick.

But things didn’t — Pitt’s defense had some exceptional moments, despite what the final score said, forcing several three-and-outs and many Tigers punts. On one Tigers drive, they tested the Panthers by going for it on fourth down and the defense came up huge by shutting it down.

Pitt’s offense twice turned the ball over to give Clemson the ball in or around the red zone. It’s unreasonable to expect the defense to be able to shut down such a high-powered offense in those situations.

The Panthers also shut down highly touted first-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence for the most part, as he completed only half of his 24 passes for a mere 118 yards.

With the season coming to a close, it’s finally clear what to expect from the defense. It will likely give up a few big plays due to missed tackles or blown coverages, but when the players are locked in, it’s a reliable unit. With so many seniors on that side of the ball, it’s a guarantee they’ll come to play for the bowl game.

Pickett must improve

Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett has been a subject of discussion throughout the season. Two 1,000-yard rushers in seniors Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall helped Pitt win games behind a tough offensive line. Pickett enabled the success of the run game by taking care of the ball.

This wasn’t the case against Clemson’s top-five defense. Pickett turned the ball over twice on Pitt’s own side of the field. One was a fumble and the other was an atrocious interception. Both led to touchdowns and contributed to a 28-10 halftime deficit when it should have been a much closer game.

Pickett’s final stats were an abysmal 4-16 for a grand total of 8 yards. The sophomore also took three sacks.

Granted, he doesn’t deserve all the blame for the offense floundering. Pickett didn’t commit the five false starts. He had almost no time to throw the entirety of the game, and Clemson’s defense was exceptional.

But Pickett has to take care of the ball. Turnovers are unacceptable in big games and the team that wins the turnover battle almost always wins the game. He also needs to start completing some tough throws. Receivers aren’t always wide open, and as the leader of the offense, the quarterback should be expected to make some impressive plays.

Pickett did enough to maintain his starting job for the duration of this season. He’s only a sophomore and was playing against one of the country’s best teams in his first title game. Next year will be a true test for him. With Ollison, Hall and much of the line gone, he’ll have to do a lot more for Pitt to succeed.

Hopefully he can connect with sophomore receiver Taysir Mack and junior receiver Maurice Ffrench — but for now, Pickett needs to pick up his play for the Panthers to have success in the Sun Bowl versus Stanford and end over .500 this season.

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