By Brian Metzer
Pittsburgh Current Sports Writer
Say what you want about Pitt Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi, but the guy isn’t shy when it comes to making predictions about his team. The 52-year-old was met with more than a little shock and awe when he told a room full of boosters at Heinz Field during a preseason luncheon that his team would play for an ACC Championship this season.
Guess what? That’s exactly what Pitt will be doing on Saturday when they take the field against the No. 2 ranked Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship game.
Pitt was coming off of a 5-7 season, so where did Narduzzi draw the confidence to make such a bold prediction?
“We can do whatever we want to do,” Narduzzi said during an ACC conference call. “Just have to put our minds to it.
“I’ve always lived my life that way, whether wanting to go to college, getting a degree, marrying my wife. I mean, I say, I think I’m going to marry that girl there. That’s the girl I want. That’s kind of what happened. I think it’s an attitude.”
Pitt (7-5, 6-2) got to this point by navigating a tough schedule that featured four ranked opponents, including No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 14 Penn State, and winning five of their final seven games to emerge from what some pundits described as a mediocre ACC Coastal Division, while Clemson (12-0, 8-0) has been perfect in winning the Atlantic Division.
Clemson is playing in its sixth ACC championship game and has won three straight against three different teams, Pitt will be the fourth different opponent they’ve faced.
The opponents haven’t mattered much for Clemson this season and they boast the fifth best offense in the nation, scoring close to 45 points per game. Their defense has been even better, ranking second and giving up just 12.1 points per game.
Having that kind of team has Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaking fairly confidently himself going into the championship game.
“We’ve had seven straight wins by 20 points or more; that’s a Clemson record,” Swinney said during the same ACC conference call. “We’ve scored 27 points or more in every game; that’s a record. We just try to focus on our business. It doesn’t matter who we play, we’re trying to play our best football. We always talk about, ‘We’re playing to the Clemson standard.’ If we sat around and worried every week about what we’re favored, whatever, you’re never going to be very consistent.”
Swinney isn’t wrong and the oddsmakers agree. Pitt has been installed as 25.5 point underdogs as of Monday and logic says that Clemson should easily dispatch them, but that is why they play the games, right?
It’s an old adage, but it’s true, especially for Narduzzi’s group.
Narduzzi-led Pitt teams are 2-0 against teams ranked No. 2. They beat this same Clemson squad 43-42 in 2016 at Frank Howard Field at Clemson Memorial Stadium (Death Valley). They also beat No. 2 ranked Miami 24-14 to end the 2017 season.
Pitt sneaked into the rankings themselves after securing the ACC Coastal Division title two weeks ago with a 34-13 win at Wake Forest, but fell back out after a three touchdown loss to Miami on Saturday.
Those two games could provide somewhat of a blueprint for what Pitt needs to do this weekend. They leaned heavier on the run throughout the season and saw Qadree Ollison rush for 1,134 yards and 10 TDs, while Darrin Hall went for 935 yards and nine TDs, but the running game stalled a bit against Wake Forest and Miami’s run defenses. The dynamic duo was held to just 96 and 75 yards on the ground in those games.
Narduzzi credited those defenses with changing how they approached their offensive game.
“Yeah, they put some extra hats in the box,” he said. “Obviously some good D-lines. Again, Wake Forest put more guys in the box. Miami didn’t put as many guys in the box, but they did some twists and stuff that we hadn’t really seen a whole lot of. They did some different things to maybe confuse our guys up front. You add the confusion with some really talented football players up front for Miami, it was a recipe for a disastrous game there.”
Considering that Clemson brings in a run defense that ranks third in the nation, the game might rest on the arm of Kenny Pickett. Pickett passed for 1,825 yards and 12 TDs this season, but his finest game might have been the win over Wake Forest, where Pitt was forced to pass more and he posted season highs in completions (23), yards (316), completion percentage (76.7) and TD passes (3).
If Pickett can come together with a talented receiving corps featuring Taysir Mack, Maurice Ffrench and Rafael Araujo-Lopes the way he did on Nov. 17, Pitt will have a chance.
Pitt’s defense will also have to be at its best.
Clemson’s toughest games this season came against Texas A&M and Syracuse, who held them to 28 and 27 points respectively. Though Clemson won both games, their margin of victory was just a combined six points in those games.
The game will not be an easy one and chances are good that the Panthers are overmatched, but Narduzzi will have his team ready. This is what he wanted when he chose to come to Pittsburgh. He wanted to play in the ACC and he wanted to win ACC Championships.
“I think what you take from it is you got to be ready and locked in to be able to block the best, to be able to tackle the best, stay in your gap against the best,” Narduzzi said. “This is not a bowl game, this is a championship game. We’re playing the No. 2 team in the country.”
Pitt is no stranger to the UPSET SPECIAL
2002 – PITT 28 – No. 3 Virginia Tech 21
2003 – No. 25 PITT 31 – No. 5 Virginia Tech 28
2007 – PITT 13 – No. 2 West Virginia 9
2008 – PITT 26 – No. 10 USF 21
2016 – PITT 42 – Penn State 39
2016 – PITT 43 – No. 2 Clemson 42
2017 – PITT 24 – No. 2 Miami 14
Pitt places six on All ACC Team
Six Pitt players were named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference football team Monday and six more received Honorable Mentions.
Two players were second-team All-ACC honorees: senior tailback Qadree Ollison and senior offensive tackle Stefano Millin.
Four players were third-team selections: senior tailback Darrin Hall, senior guard Mike Herndon, sophomore center Jimmy Morrissey and sophomore placekicker Alex Kessman.
Junior Maurice Ffrench, senior fullback George Aston, senior offensive tackle Alex Bookser, senior guard Connor Dintino, junior cornerback Dane Jackson and junior safety Damar Hamlin all received an Honorable Mention recognition. Ffrench was recognized as both an all-purpose player and return specialist.
Broadcast Information (Per University of Pittsburgh)
Television • ABC-TV (WTAE, Channel 4, in Pittsburgh)
Chris Fowler (play-by-play), Kirk Herbstreit (analyst), Maria Taylor (reporter)
Pitt Radio • 93.7 The Fan & the Pitt IMG Sports Network
Bill Hillgrove (play-by-play), Pat Bostick (analyst), Larry Richert (reporter)
National Radio • ESPN
Bill Rosinski (play-by-play), David Norrie (analyst), Molly McGrath (reporter)
SiriusXM Satellite Radio (Pitt Broadcast)
Sirius Channel 84, XM Channel 84, Internet Channel 84
WPTS Radio (Pitt Student Station) • 92.1 FM
Pitt IMG Sports Network Online Audio Options
PittsburghPanthers.com; Pitt Panthers Gameday App; TuneIn (free live and on-demand content)