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No. 23 Pitt defeats Clemson, 27-17

NCAA Football: Clemson at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When Pitt knocked off Clemson in 2016, it was one of the biggest upsets of the year in college football. The Panthers knocked off the Tigers today, but this one wasn’t the shock it was five years ago.

Pitt won fairly convincingly over Clemson, 27-17, on Saturday. The offense got off to a bit of a slow start but the Panthers took control of the game in the second quarter and didn’t look back.

The Panthers (6-1) came into this one as a slight favorite. But many, including myself, didn’t see it as nearly that clear cut. Sure, I picked Pitt to win. A loss, though, would have surprised few, because the Tigers’ defense has been so strong. Seeing Clemson (4-3) win a 14-13 game, or something similar, was entirely possible. In five of the six games Clemson played coming into Saturday, they allowed 14 points or less.

But it’s the Clemson offense that’s been their Achilles heel. And unfortunately for the Tigers, it was another tough day at the office for that side of the ball against a tough Pitt defense. Things got so bad that Clemson even tried a quarterback change, only to go back to starter D.J. Uiagalelei later in the game.

Aside from a 49-point outburst against South Carolina State, Clemson has struggled to put points on the board this year. That’s an understatement, actually. Besides that game, Clemson has only reached the modest 20-point threshold one other time this year — and even that was in a 27-21 loss to NC State. That theme continued on Saturday as Pitt harassed starting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei into two interceptions, including an unreal pick six by SirVocea Dennis on a shovel pass that went awry.

That play, giving Pitt a 21-7 lead was really a turning point of sorts. The Panthers had already changed the tide before that, of course, scoring 14 unanswered points. But the pick six by Dennis put them up by 14 and that was the point I really began to think Clemson was in real trouble because, frankly, I didn’t see them scoring more than 21 points today.

Offensively, Pitt didn’t reach the highs they have against weaker competition. That was, of course, to be expected .But, scoring 27 points, they were hardly stymied, either. Quarterback Kenny Pickett just had a heck of a game, completing 25 of 39 passes and throwing for 302 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Critically, he also gave the Panthers the scrambling they needed, too. Thanks to a few sacks, the box score doesn’t really show that as Pickett finished with only 15 yards rushing. But with Pitt desperate to run out the clock, Pickett ran for eight yards and a first down with seven minutes left before running for seven more yards and a second first down in the next set of downs. Time and again, Pickett is just proving his worth as one of the top players in the country.

Pickett having a big game wasn’t too much of a surprise. But you can make the argument that he exceeded expectations today. Throwing for 300 yards and coming up with the big first down scrambles he had late in the game would have been a mighty big ask. I can’t say enough about the way he played today and he just looks consistently elite, game after game.

What did surprise me, though, was the Pitt running game. The Panthers’ leading rusher was nowhere near 100 yards. But collectively, the three-headed monster of Israel Abanikanda, Rodney Hammond, and Vincent Davis was more than capable. That trio rushed for over 150 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. And given where the running game was early in the year, they are staging a remarkable comeback.

Two things about the ground game stuck out to me. Abanikanda, critically, went down with an injury (as did leading receiver Jordan Addison) and Hammond was forced into action. And even in the fourth quarter when you knew Pitt was going to try to lean on the run, Hammond still did a ton of damage and picked up three first downs.

Now, Abanikanda was playing well. But something Pickett said after the game was interesting. He said Pitt knew they would have Hammond on fresh legs and, despite Abanikanda playing well, I have to think Pitt would have gone to Hammond late in the game, anyway.

The other takeaway is that Vincent Davis was the least impressive of the three (12 carries for 30 yards) but even he was out there making some plays. He had a big first down late that helped seal the game and also caught three passes for 24 yards. I think it’s fair to question if he should be getting quite as many carries as he is but at the same time, he does get in there and make things happen on occasion. I think he’s a solid change of pace to the larger Abanikanda and Hammond, and I think it’s reasonable to continue giving him some carries — even if it’s a lesser workload. That’s an unpopular opinion, I think, but I respect what Davis is able to do, even if he’s not terribly consistent.

So, where do we stand now? Here’s the deal.

Pitt is 6-1 and after today, is likely going to be a Top 20 team. And coming into the season, there is not a person alive that would not have been satisfied with that. The other side of that, of course, is to wonder what might have been if they won the Western Michigan game. Instead of talking about winning the ACC, the conversation would be about trying to get into the Playoff. And while, I guess, that’s still a possibility, the Western Michigan loss is clearly going to be a weight around their neck. This year, in particular, is looking tough with Cincinnati poised to potentially gobble up a spot from the P5 ranks. But it goes deeper than that.

Not only was the Western Michigan game a bad loss, Pitt really doesn’t have any more chances in the regular season at a statement win. The teams that looked like they could provide that at this point in the year, North Carolina and Miami, haven’t been as strong as expected. Even Virginia at 5-2 isn’t likely to give Pitt the really big win that they need. There’s a potential ACC title game, of course. But could a one-loss Pitt team come out ahead of other one-loss teams? Not when you start comparing losses and quality wins.

Why am I talking Playoff when we’re barely past the halfway point in the season? Because I know that discussion is coming. Clemson was probably the best remaining team on the schedule and Pitt will probably be favored in the remainder of their games. This talk, warranted or not, is coming. And while I’m not here to squash it, I bring it up for two specific reasons.

First, I bring up to point out how astonishing it is that we’re even at this point. The last game recap I did for the site was Western Michigan and, at that point, the ‘Fire Narduzzi’ narrative was so thick that even I, an ardent Narduzzi supporter, had joined the chorus, with the assumption that Pitt wouldn’t be able to turn things around. Not only have they turned things around, they’ve done so in such a manner that a ten-win season at this point is expected and not some pipe dream. After that game, that’s incredible that we’re here having these discussions.

The other reason I bring it up is because, let’s say Pitt does run the table. I’m not particularly convinced they will but we’re to the point now where such talk isn’t nonsense. And if it does happen, I’m okay if Pitt doesn’t bully their way into the Playoff. The Western Michigan loss, in that case, will become ten times more infuriating as it is now. But if Pitt manages to go 11-1 and reach an ACC title game, I’m sorry — I can’t be upset at that. And I couldn’t even bring myself to ‘what if’ things to death about the Western Michigan game.

This is special I’m going to enjoy it.

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