Column | Pitt flips the script in 27-17 win over Clemson

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Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt’s Brandon Hill (9), David Green (2), Sirvocea Dennis (7) and Wendell Davis (20) run down the field at Saturday’s game against Clemson University at Heinz Field.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

Saturday’s game presented a program-altering opportunity for the Panthers, who welcomed the Clemson Tigers to town. It also was the first time since 2016 that the Tigers were underdogs against an ACC opponent. Pitt entered into uncharted waters — now being expected to win against a national powerhouse opposed to pulling the occasional shocking upset. 

Pitt took full advantage, defeating Clemson handily by a score of 27-17.

Photos: Clemson football game

This is not “the same old Pitt”

When the Panthers mustered up just 72 yards and no points in the first quarter, Pitt fans immediately thought that this was just the “same old Pitt.” 

The Pitt of the past underachieved and squandered chances to take the next step seemingly season in and season out. This year’s version of the Panthers does not fit that mold. The Panthers have found ways to overcome adversity and create different ways to win in 2021, unlike those teams of old.

So, when fifth-year senior quarterback Kenny Pickett drove the Panthers down the field for consecutive touchdowns to take a 14-7 lead entering the half, it came as no shock. 

The Panthers built a commanding lead in the second half — following junior linebacker Sirvocea Dennis’ interception return for a touchdown to open the second half — and never looked back. That is the sign of a good football team and it starts at the top, according to Dennis. 

“It’s across the board leadership,” Dennis said. “We are all buying in.”

Dennis mentioned postgame that his first career interception came with a bit of luck. 

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” Dennis said. “It was a great play call by Coach Bates, and that play put me in that position to be in that spot.”

The Panthers jumped into the top-20 of the AP poll this week and are receiving much deserved notoriety. Panther fans should soak it in, rather than view it as a precursor to disaster. 

This season has all the makings of something special, and it’s a privilege when each game means more the deeper into the season you go. Head coach Pat Narduzzi acknowledged the rising stakes after Saturday’s win.

“They know how important the next one is,” Narduzzi said. “They get bigger, every game gets a little bit bigger.”

Enjoy the ride because in no way is this “same old Pitt.” 

Nobody in the ACC can stop Pitt’s offense 

Clemson entered the game with the second best scoring defense in the nation — the same defense that held No.1 Georgia to just three points of offense and under 300 yards in Week One. 

“You look at the quality of opponents we played, and what they’ve done to other teams, what they did to the number one team in the country,” Pickett said. “We were able to come in and put up points.” 

The Panthers offense posted 464 yards of offense and 20 points.

Late in the game, the Panthers imposed their will on the ground as first-year running back Rodney Hammond ran the ball 11 times for 66 yards, adding to sophomore Israel Abanikanda’s 56 yards on the ground. The duo of Hammond and Abanikanda combined for more than 100 yards of rushing. 

“When we want to run the ball, we can run the ball,” Narduzzi said. 

The Panthers became the first team all season to surpass 400 yards of offense against the Tigers and their ability to play as a balanced football team definitely helped. Nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the season that the Panthers would have rushed for more than 150 yards against a stout Clemson front, but they proved once again that their offense is as dynamic as any in the country. 

Pickett once again spread the wealth to his plethora of weapons, with 10 different Panthers tallying a reception. He ended the day with 302 yards and two passing touchdowns, and solidified himself as a contender in the Heisman race.

The past two weeks brought the toughest defensive tests that the Panthers will see in conference play, and they won each game by double digits. All signs point to the Panther offense continuing their dominance throughout the remainder of the ACC schedule. 

This win cannot be understated

Pickett didn’t want anyone to underestimate the struggling Tigers entering this week. 

“They’re still Clemson,” Pickett said following Pitt’s win over Virginia Tech.

Clemson came into the game with several key absences, including leading receiver Joseph Ngata and starting center Hunter Rayburn, who did not play due to COVID protocols. But every team deals with injuries — that’s just part of the sport. 

Pitt overcame injuries to Abanikanda and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison and still found a way to win the game.

“It was next man up, obviously we really missed those two guys,” Pickett said. “They’re big time players for us, but in that moment it’s really Rodney’s turn to come up.”

Clemson is still one of the biggest brands in the sport, loaded with five-star talent. Anytime you beat a team of that stature — make no mistake about it — it’s a statement win.

There’s a reason there was so much buzz heading into this game, and a reason why Heinz Field filled 60,594 of its seats. The Panthers and fans alike know what the Tigers represent and the challenge they present whenever they step on the field.

When you line up to play the Tigers, you’re playing a team that has won six-straight ACC titles, and two national titles in the past five years — a team that is synonymous with dominance in the landscape of college football for years.

Knowing this, recruits swarmed the home sideline, and when they left the gates with a dominating Pitt victory fresh in their minds, it can’t be understated that this was a program-defining win.

Not only does it give Pitt a boost in the rankings, but it helps in recruiting, fans take notice, attendance increases and it changes the outlook on the program. 

The Panthers’ win over the Tigers can vault them to new heights in the coming years as they put the rest of the college football world on notice. 

Hammond declared postgame that this season is about them, not the opponent. 

“We’re Pitt,” Hammond said. “We are not scared of nobody. We’re dogs.”

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