Horrific first quarter dooms Pitt in 52-17 loss at Clemson

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Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

Senior quarterback Kenny Pickett threw four interceptions in Pitt’s 52-17 loss to Clemson on Saturday

By Alex Lehmbeck, Sports Editor

The last time Pitt went to Death Valley, it pulled off the greatest upset in school history. The unranked Panthers shocked undefeated No. 2 Clemson 43-42, thanks to a game winning 48-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt. The Tigers would go on to win the national championship a couple of months later.

Clemson very well may win the national championship this year, but Pitt didn’t have any of its 2016 magic on Saturday night. The Panthers (5-5, 4-5 ACC) made their return to Memorial Stadium on Saturday and couldn’t cover the 24-point spread, as the Tigers (8-1, 7-1 ACC) cruised to a 52-17 victory.

“It was more about what we did,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “They’re a good football team, but we didn’t make plays today on either side of the ball.”

Five Pitt players didn’t make the trip to South Carolina this week due to COVID-related protocols, an improvement from the 16 players that missed last week’s win over Virginia Tech for COVID-related reasons. Some of Pitt’s key starters returned to the lineup on Saturday, including first-year wideout Jordan Addison, redshirt first-year Brandon Hill and sophomore linebacker SirVocea Dennis.

But the most anticipated appearance came for the home team. Tigers star quarterback Trevor Lawrence took the field on Saturday for the first time since he tested positive for COVID-19 in late October.

It didn’t take long for Lawrence to get back into stride. After the Panthers forced a three-and-out on Clemson’s first possession, the explosive offense that leads the ACC with 45.4 points per game found its footing. The Tigers capitalized on an interception thrown by Panthers senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, with Lawrence connecting with first-year wideout E.J. Williams for the first score of the game.

After settling for a field goal on their next offensive possession, the Tigers picked off Pickett again. Lawrence took advantage of the mistake, throwing a 43-yard touchdown to senior wide receiver Cornell Powell to give Clemson a 17-0 lead.

The first quarter bleeding hadn’t stopped yet, though. A short throw from Pickett bounced off his receiver’s hands, landing with a Tigers cornerback for Pickett’s third interception of the period. Hill got disqualified for targeting a few plays later, and senior running back Travis Etienne walked into the end zone for Clemson.

Pitt’s offense looked completely inept in the first quarter, turning the ball over three times and only gaining one first down. After another three-and-out gave the ball back to the Tigers, junior running back Lyn-J Dixon lunged into the end zone to give the Tigers another touchdown, and a 31-0 lead heading into the second period.

“[Early mistakes] hurt us incredibly,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Jimmy Morrissey said. “Three turnovers in the first quarter, or the first half. It’s hard to come back from three turnovers.”

The Panthers started to provide some resistance in the second quarter. Senior Alex Kessman put the Panthers on the board with a short field goal, but sophomore running back Chez Mellusi responded with a short touchdown run for the Tigers.

Pitt finally found the end zone a few minutes later, running ten pass plays on an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by an acrobatic catch by Addison in the endzone off of a tipped ball. The catch trimmed the Tigers’ lead to 28 at halftime.

The late touchdown seemed to give the Panthers a much-needed boost. Pitt redshirt senior defensive end Rashad Weaver sacked Lawrence on the first play from scrimmage of the second half, forcing a fumble which the Panthers jumped on. 

“I made the play and it was exactly what you were hoping for at halftime,” Weaver said. “Give the ball back to the offense, get some points on the board, and try to flip that score around.”

Pickett quickly completed a 15-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Jared Wayne, before hitting a wide-open Vincent Davis for his second touchdown pass of the day. The Panthers had outscored Clemson 17-7 since the first quarter snafu, still trailing 38-17 with a lot of football remaining.

Lawrence threw a beautiful ball to a diving Amari Rodgers for what looked to be his third touchdown pass of the day, but an ineligible receiver downfield penalty wiped the points off the board. The Tigers had to settle for a 41-yard field goal attempt instead — which junior B.T. Potter promptly missed — giving Pitt an opportunity to continue its comeback.

The Panther offense couldn’t get anything else going, though, and Etienne’s second touchdown of the day with under a minute left in the third quarter put the game away. With a 28-point cushion going into the fourth quarter, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney pulled Lawrence for the rest of the night. The projected first overall NFL draft pick finished with 403 yards and two touchdowns.

“Trevor Lawrence and that cannon arm he’s got,” Narduzzi said. “I’ve never seen anybody throw a ball as far as he threw it.”

Pickett started the final period with an immediate turnover, his fourth pick of the night. He became the first Panther quarterback of the century to throw four interceptions in a single game. 

Tigers backup quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei led his unit down the field in his first appearance since losing a 47-40 double overtime thriller at No. 4 Notre Dame in Lawrence’s absence. His nine-yard touchdown pass to Mellusi put Clemson ahead 52-17.

Pitt redshirt first-year Daniel Carter fumbled with under a minute to play, and sophomore linebacker Kane Patterson returned it 57 yards to the Panther goal line. Clemson tried two quick rushes to get redshirt senior Darien Rencher in the end zone, but the Panthers stopped both attempts and the clock expired.

Narduzzi’s team will have a week off, before going to Atlanta to conclude the regular season on Dec. 10 against Georgia Tech. With the Panthers’ .500 record and an uncertain bowl schedule, It might be the last time some of Pitt’s seniors step on the field.

“It’s 2020, so right now the only guaranteed game we have is Georgia Tech,” Morrissey said. “Just look forward to playing our last guaranteed game, that’s all we have left to look forward to.”

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