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Moment of truth arrives for Pitt in ACC title game

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, 6:31 p.m.
Pitt’s offensive linemen and other blockers will have to keep quarterback Kenny Pickett from running for his life against Clemson.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt’s offensive linemen and other blockers will have to keep quarterback Kenny Pickett from running for his life against Clemson.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — No matter what the Vegas wise guys say, Pitt and Clemson will line up and play the ACC championship game Saturday night, anyway.

Pitt is a 27 1 2 -point underdog to No. 2 Clemson, but coach Pat Narduzzi said Friday at Bank of America Stadium that football is about more than physical ability.

“We can take all the measureables, but the one thing you can’t measure is what’s inside that heart,” he said. “Our kids are going to play wlth a lot of heart, a lot of effort.

“In Pittsburgh, we have a lot of toughness. That’s what I expect to get out of our football team.”

Pitt gets the chance to make — maybe even change — history, considering a Clemson loss could turn the College Football Playoff field upside down.

Win or lose, it will be a historic night for the Pitt program that has sought relevance for many years and gets the opportunity to play in a conference title game for the first time.

You can argue Pitt hasn’t played in a game that carried this much significance since the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1982 — Dan Marino to John Brown. That was only a bowl game. This is for the championship of a Power 5 conference.

How can Pitt upset a team that might be No. 1 not long after the dawn of the new year? Here are three ways Pitt can win and three ways it can lose:

1. Play the perfect game

Impossible? Maybe not against Clemson, but Pitt needs to try, or this game could get out of hand.

The key is to limit Clemson’s possessions, not give them extra swings at the pinata.

Pitt has compiled a plus-5 turnover ratio this season (fourth best in the ACC), thanks to quarterback Kenny Pickett. He is working on a streak of 132 consecutive throws without a pick.

Perfection also includes a nice balance between running and passing, something similar — or perhaps better — than what evolved at Wake Forest. Pickett threw for 316 yards, and Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall combined to rush for 96 but Wake Forest did not field an elite defense.

Look out for Clemson’s “dancing bears,” Narduzzi’s term for the Tigers’ defensive linemen, three of whom earned first-team All-ACC honors.

“They’re big. They’re physical, and they’re fast,” Narduzzi said.

2. Keep the quarterback upright

The perfection Pitt needs to achieve must surface among its offensive linemen and anyone else protecting Pickett. He was sacked 10 times by Miami (six) and Penn State (four), and four other teams, including 2-10 North Carolina, dropped him three times.

Given time, Pickett can find his targets and deliver the ball with accuracy and authority. But when a pass rusher gets in his face before he can look downfield — and we’ve seen that happen on numerous occasions — the 20-year-old sophomore has no chance.

This might be the most difficult feat for Pitt to achieve. Not only does Clemson lead the ACC in run defense (84.8 yards per game), but its 43 sacks also top the conference.

But South Carolina amassed 600 yards, much of it procured by making big plays in the passing game. Championship teams make big plays downfield. That’s the only way to loosen Clemson’s stingy run defense.

3. Don’t get overwhelmed

With seniors in key positions on both sides of the ball, Pitt should not get swallowed up by the moment.

ACC officials are expecting a crowd about 10,000 under Bank of America Stadium’s 75,523 capacity, still a big, noisy throng.

Pitt played and won in front of 81,000 in Death Valley two years ago, and many of those players are still on the roster. There were 68,400 at Heinz Field for the Penn State game this year, 77,622 at Notre Dame and 59,606 at Miami.

Pitt must maintain its poise and not hurt itself with penalties. Only Florida State and Louisville committed more penalties than Pitt’s 87 in 12 games.

Clemson doesn’t need that type of help, and Pitt can’t win unless it keeps the yellow towels off Bank of American’s Bermuda grass.

Here’s how Clemson can win:

1. Let Trevor Lawrence use his gifted right arm

Lawrence is a freshman who won the job after four games, triggering senior Kelly Bryant’s plans to transfer.

It makes sense to attempt to disrupt Lawrence’s rhythm, but Narduzzi said, “He doesn’t get rattled too much.”

“You thought he might get rattled in that South Carolina game, big rivalry game.”

But Lawrence completed 27 of 36 passes for 393 yards, one touchdown and no picks.

“The guy is just smooth,” Narduzzi said. “This guy’s a future first-round quarterback, No. 1 pick. He’s got the best release I’ve ever seen.”

2. After showing off its passing game, turn to Travis Etienne

The Clemson running back is the ACC Player of the Year and the likely rushing champion, with 1,307 yards, far enough ahead of Ollison, the current runner-up with 1,134, to cruise to the ACC title.

Pitt beat Clemson two years ago by shutting down its running game, even while worrying about future first-round draft choice Deshaun Watson. Pitt needs more such magic this time.

3. Keep their eyes on the prize

Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said earlier this week some players may have eased up in their approach to the Pitt game two years ago.

Don’t expect that to happen Saturday. Clemson is headed to the College Football Playoff semifinals — maybe even win or lose — but winning the ACC matters because it will be the school’s fifth since 2011 and ACC-record fourth in a row.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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