Clemson overpowers mistake-prone Pitt, 42-10
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Angry, disappointed and eager to start finding answers after taking a 42-10 beating from Clemson in the ACC championship game Saturday night, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi clearly didn’t like this question.
Did his team take a step forward this season?
The answer was quick and defiant, as you might expect from a man who has been in difficult competitive situations throughout his coaching career.
“Certainly,” he said. “We played in an ACC championship game, we ran through the Coastal and won that division. Our kids have earned that.”
To Narduzzi, it’s matter of simple math.
“I think we won five last year so count. Five (last season’s victory total) is not as good as seven.”
Yet, Pitt (7-6) must win a bowl game later this month to avoid a second consecutive non-winning season after back-to-back 8-5 efforts in Narduzzi’s first two seasons at Pitt.
This one is not ending well, with losses to Miami and Clemson in the past two games by a combined score of 66-13.
“Sometimes, you’re going to take a step backwards to take two forward,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do, period.”
Stepping onto its biggest stage in many years before a crowd of 67,784 at Bank of America Stadium, Pitt stumbled like the lights got in their eyes. Clemson (13-0) didn’t need any help, but the Tigers used 21 points off Pitt turnovers while winning a record fourth consecutive ACC championship. Ranked No. 2 by the College Football Playoff committee, Clemson will enter the national semifinals for the fourth time in four seasons.
Maybe it was the opponent – Clemson is the third undefeated team to appear on Pitt’s schedule this season – but the Panthers were out of sync on both sides of the ball early in the game. It started with game MVP Travis Etienne’s 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. It carried over to Pitt’s second possession when the Panthers were called for three consecutive penalties on unforced errors without snapping the ball – a delay of game with two false starts wrapped around it. Overall, Pitt committed eight penalties for a loss of 54 yards.
“I don’t think our communication coming from our sideline to the huddle was very good,” Narduzzi said.
Said senior offensive tackle Alex Bookser, who put much of the blame on himself: “The biggest issue right now is just communication. Teams are taking advantage of that.”
Part of it is the loss of center Jimmy Morrissey to a season-ending ankle injury two weeks ago.
“It’s tough when the general of the line, who makes all the calls, goes down,” Bookser said.
But Pitt went into the game without a passing attack, and that was at least as significant a problem as any injury or turnover. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett, who also lost two fumbles, completed only four of 16 passes for 8 yards. Overall, Pitt managed 200 total against a defense that allowed 600 last week against South Carolina.
Pitt trailed, 28-10, at halftime, but Pickett threw only four passes in the second half, completing one. The Panthers leaned on their running game, which has produced two 1,000-yard rushers – seniors Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall – for the first time in school history.
“I would give all 1,000 back just to win this game,” said Hall, who went over the top with 86 against Clemson.
But running was not the way to catch up against Clemson, which kept up the pressure by running for 301 (156 and two touchdowns by Etienne, the ACC player of the year).
“The front four, they got at least three (NFL draft) first rounders, maybe four,” Narduzzi said of Clemson, who recorded two sacks and three hurries. “We didn’t execute. Kenny missed a couple shots, too. There were some guys open we didn’t hit. It’s not easy. Quarterbacks is probably the hardest position to play.”
Then, there was the curious case of Narduzzi not settling for a 21-10 halftime deficit. He had Pickett throwing the ball from the Pitt 31 on third-and-10 with less than a minute left in the half — even knowing Pitt was due to receive the opening kickoff of the second half.
Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell intercepted – it was Pickett’s first pick since Oct. 6 – and returned the football to the 10-yard line. One play later, freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for a touchdown, the pair’s second scoring connection within five minutes of the second quarter.
Narduzzi steadfastly defended his aggressive play-calling.
“If you just want to play not to lose bad, that’s fine,” he said. “We’re playing to win. We can take a knee if you want to and then get booed. Pick your poison.
“We want our guys to go out and compete and that’s the only way you’re going to learn.”
Pitt has one more shot at redemption. It will receive a bowl invitation Sunday, and a victory there would give the Panthers three eight-victory seasons in Narduzzi’s four years. It’s also the last chance for Pitt’s 19 seniors to end the season the right way.
“This group of guys, we’ve been here for five years,” safety Dennis Briggs said. “This is a culmination of all the work we’ve been through and it hurts.
“We’re going through the emotions of losing and we have to get over that because we have another game to go. We have to finish this journey we started.”
Briggs and his teammates must ensure the pain of the loss will not linger.
“This is a tough score to look at,” he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.