Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
What a great day it was in Death Valley on Saturday. Military Appreciation Day is always so special at Clemson—especially when the Tigers put together a clean game on both sides of the ball and post a 54-0 shutout of an ACC opponent! That is what the Tigers are capable of when they catch the ball and don’t commit turnovers or excessive penalties, as they did at Florida State. The only other games that have been that mistake-free were Boston College and South Carolina State, and those were similar blowouts. The offense amassed 396 yards and scored 30 points in the first half, and the defense allowed just 277 total yards in the shutout. That is flat-out domination. The Tigers extended their nation-leading home win streak to 21 games, and they are now 4-0 against Syracuse since they joined the ACC. The previous two meetings had been somewhat close, but the Orange were crushed this time. For a detailed analysis of last week’s win, read my grades HERE.
As for the CFP rankings, the Tigers remained in the #2 spot behind Alabama. You could make the argument that Clemson should be #1 based on resume alone, as the Tigers have had a tougher strength of schedule and have beaten more teams currently ranked, including #6 Louisville, #9 Auburn on the road and #18 Florida State on the road. However, Alabama is the defending national champion and has dominated most of its opponents. If the status quo remains unchanged, the Tigers will find themselves back in Glendale, Arizona—the scene of the crime—for the CFP Semifinal, while Alabama will have the luxury of playing in Atlanta. From that perspective, it would be better for the Tigers and the fans to be ranked #4 than #2, but that is beyond their control. Perhaps Auburn will help Clemson out and pull off a stunning upset in the Iron Bowl. Crazier things have happened!
Before I get into this week’s interdivisional matchup with Pitt, I just want to remind you that Gary will post his list of visiting recruits on Friday night. We received word last night that 4-star LB Drew Singleton from New Jersey will not be able to take his official visit this weekend as planned, so we will be monitoring his situation going forward. As usual, Gary will have a photo gallery and recruit reactions in his Recruiting Radar on Monday. As always, be sure visit the Recruiting Radar Screen forum regularly for the latest updates and intel on the recruiting front! Also, if you can’t make it to the Tiger Walk before the game on Saturday, remember that we’ll have a live video stream on The Valley Forum, so you can experience it live from your living room, tailgate spot, bar or wherever you may be! We’ll also have our usual live pre-game warmup video stream on The Valley as well!
By the way, it’s a big weekend for Clemson Nation, as the basketball team opens its season and officially re-opens newly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum on Friday night against UGA, and we’ll of course have full coverage of that. This could be the best team Brad Brownell has had at Clemson, with All-ACC First-Teamer Jaron Blossomgame (2nd in votes for Preseason ACC Player of the Year) returning as well as Donte Grantham and a deep, talented back court. They blew Lander out 105-49 in an exhibition last week, and after winning 10 games in the ACC last season, there are high hopes of returning to the NCAA Tourney this season. They did suffer a set back a couple days ago when point guard Shelton Mitchell injured his knee at practice. He had a successful surgery but will be out 2-4 weeks. Mitchell was the fastest player and best passer on the team, and he scored 15 points last week, so he will definitely be missed. The Tigers will also be without forward transfer Elijah Thomas for another month or so due to NCAA transfer rules. So Friday night’s game will be critical to get off to a fast start and build some momentum with the home crowd in the new and improved Littlejohn. If the Tigers can win most of their early season non-conference games, unlike last year, they will have a great shot once they are at full strength and begin ACC play.
Finally, the RPI #1 Men’s Soccer team advanced to the ACC Championship with a last-minute 1-0 win over #25 Boston College on Wednesday night. The Tigers, of course, are defending National Runners-up like the football team, and they will be playing for their 15th ACC Title as they face Wake Forest on Sunday at 2:00 in Charleston. Coach Noonan made the suggestion to the league office to hold the ACC Championship in Charleston, and now he gets to bring his team there. So all of you Charleston Tigers out there who cannot make the trip for the Pitt game, be sure to put on your Orange and come out to MUSC Health Stadium (formerly Blackbaud Stadium) on Daniel Island to support the Tigers!
On to the Pitt game….
Clemson and Pitt have met only once ever. The Panthers beat the Tigers 34-3 in the 1977 Gator Bowl. Clemson was ranked #10 and Pitt was the defending national champion, ranked #11 going into that game. The following year, Clemson beat Ohio State in the 1978 Gator Bowl—the infamous game that got Woody Hayes fired for punching a Clemson player on the sideline after making a game-sealing interception…..Pittsburgh is the 57th team to play in Death Vallley, and the Tigers are 42-13-1 (.758) against teams playing their first time in Death Valley. Since 1978, Clemson is 26-2 (.929) against such team. The only such teams to beat Clemson in that stretch are Marshall and Miami. The 1999 Marshall team went undefeated with Chad Pennington and finished #10 in the AP. They beat the Tigers 13-10 in Tommy Bowden’s first year as head coach. Miami was #10 when it beat Clemson 36-30 in the 2005 triple-overtime thriller. Aside from those two close losses, the Tigers are 26-0 since 1978 against teams making their first trip to Death Valley…..For the first time in ACC history, two Player of the Year recipients will play head-to-head. Pitt RB James Conner won the award in 2014, and Deshaun Watson won it last year….Watson’s career completion percentage of .667 is 4th in the FBS. His yards per pass attempt of 8.54 is 2nd in the FBS. Watson needs 258 total yards to become just the 6th player in ACC history with 10,000 total yards. No other player has reached the plateau as a junior….The Clemson senior class has a record of 44-6, which is the best win percentage in school history (.880). They have an ACC record of 28-3. The Clemson record is 29-4 set by last year’s senior class. The 2016 senior class is 25-1 at home. The 2014 and 2015 classes were each 26-2 at home. The 2016 class has been a part of a Clemson-record 17-game win streak, the active school-record 21-game home win streak and the active school-record 23-game regular season win streak. They were also a part of 35 of the active 46-game win streak versus unranked teams. They have 9 wins over ranked teams, including 5 wins over top-10 teams. They have had a final ranking in the top-15 every year….With a win over Pitt, Clemson would be just the 10th Power Five school in history to win at least 10 games in 6 consecutive seasons, and it would be the longest active streak behind Alabama, which is closing in on an 8th straight season. Other schools to have accomplished the feat include FSU, Texas, Virginia Tech, Miami, Alabama, Oregon, USC, Florida and Ohio State. It would be the Tigers’ 12th 10-win season overall, and Dabo will have coached half of those…
The biggest news to come out this week was the situation with former starting right tackle Jake Fruhmorgen. The true sophomore was out for a couple games with an injured shoulder, but as I reported last week, he was going through some personal issues, similar to what we saw with Jay Guillermo when he left the team for a year. He played sparingly against his home-state Seminoles and did not suit up last week. Dabo told us on Wednesday evening that his parents were in Clemson to provide support, and he asked that we keep Jake in our thoughts and prayers. Jake has not done anything wrong. He is just having a hard time emotionally, and it is unclear when he return to the team, if at all. You can watch Dabo talk about the situation after practice on Wednesday HERE. The good news is that true freshmen Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum have been outstanding at RT in Fruhmorgen’s absence, and they will split the time there again on Saturday.
The other big concern this week has obviously been the status of Deshaun Watson’s shoulder after bruising it and leaving the game last week. Dabo said that he could have finished the Syracuse game if it had been close, and reports are that Watson is good to go for the Pitt game. The good that came out of the injury is that it gave Nick Schuessler an opportunity to get some golden game experience outside of mop-up duty. Sure, the Tigers had a big lead when he came in, but Syracuse still had all of its starters in on defense, and the offense did not miss a beat with Schuessler at the helm. He threw for 177 yards and 2 touchdowns in less than a half and made good decisions. He also led an impressive 33-second drive down to the Cuse 23 before halftime. Should something happen to Watson, God forbid, the coaches and players have every confidence in Schuessler. Beating the likes of Alabama would be tough without Watson, but I think Schuessler would be more than capable of winning the next 3 games and ACC Championship if needed.
I asked Dabo if there was any consideration to Watson being more conservative and cautious in certain games and certain situations—perhaps sliding feet-first at times instead of throwing his body around the way he does. Dabo said that he’s just a competitor trying to make plays, and it’s who he is. Tony Elliott told me that it’s dangerous to try to change the way Watson plays because it’s what makes him special. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing Watson be a little more cautious at times. On that play against Cuse, the game was likely already out of reach, and he had already picked up the first down, so I don’t think there would have been any harm in sliding to avoid landing hard on his shoulder. He’s going to take plenty of hits down the stretch, so in my opinion he’d be well-advised to take a little more care—again, given the situation. Lay it all on the line in the ACC Championship Game when you have a month to heal after. If he’s going to make a late push for the Heisman, he won’t be able to miss much more time.
Speaking of the ACC Championship Game, the Tigers have a chance to clinch the division at home with a win against Pittsburgh. It would be the first time the Tigers have played in back-to-back ACC Championship Games, and it will give the Tigers the opportunity to repeat as ACC Champs for the first time since they won 3 in a row from 1986 to 1988! It would also be the Tigers’ 6th consecutive season with 10 or more wins. Alabama is the only other school with such a streak. The Tigers have won a school-record 15 straight ACC games.
It was business as usual this week with the coaches and players. Clemson had fall break on Monday and Tuesday, so it gave the team some extra meeting and film study time in their preparation for Pitt. After back-to-back nail-biters against NC State and Florida State, it was definitely a breath of fresh air to have beaten Syracuse so convincingly. The Tigers had no turnovers in the game after committing 2 at Florida State and 4 against NC State. Prior to those games, the Tigers had no turnovers in their 56-10 win at Boston College, so let’s hope the trend is not cyclical. The Tigers are now plus 3 in turnovers for the season, and they need to start forging good habits on a consistent basis now that we are in November with the post-season looming.
Speaking of turnovers, how about the 3 interceptions last week? The Tigers lead the ACC with 15 interceptions and are just one behind the national lead. They remarkably have 12 different players with picks this season! By comparison, #17 UNC has zero interceptions on the season. The Clemson secondary might be the story of the season. It was without a doubt the biggest question mark in August after losing 3 underclassman starters, but they are currently ranked #11 in the nation, allowing just 180.1 passing yards per game. The run defense has surprisingly not been as good—they are #34, allowing 132.8 yards per game—but they have faced some of the best rushers in the nation in Dalvin Cook, Lamar Jackson and Matt Dayes. The Tigers are #8 in scoring defense (15.8 points/game) and #12 in total defense (312.9 yards/game).
Offensively, the Tigers seem to finally be hitting their stride, just as they did late last season. Despite all of the rhetoric about the “struggling Clemson offense” this season, guess what: the Tigers have exactly 3 more yards of total offense and only one less point than last season after 9 games. Granted, most were expecting the Tigers would simply pick up where they left off after putting 40 points and 500 yards of offense on Alabama and continue to put up similar numbers from week one this season. It hasn’t worked out that way, but Dabo is right when he says this offense is better than it was last year. If not for all of the drops and turnovers, the numbers would be much better than last year’s at this point instead of dead even. The Tigers are now #24 in total offense (488.4 yards/game), #13 in pass offense (320.2 yards/game) and #21 in scoring offense (38.6 points/game). The area in which they are really lagging compared to last season is the run game, where they are #72 with 168.2 yards/game. Both Gallman and Watson are well below their rushing numbers from last season, but there has been improvement in the last 4 or 5 games. Gallman had been tied with Raymond Priester atop the Clemson career 100-yard rushing game list for several weeks now but has been unable to capture his 16th one and stand alone. It would be nice to see him set the record that has eluded him in front of the home crowd, but this Pitt defense will be tough to run on. If he is able to reach 100 yards, it will be a great indication that the running game is back where we want it to be!
Deon Cain is one of the most dangerous big-play wide receivers in the nation. He is coming off his third 2-touchdown game of the season and was robbed of a 3rd touchdown (see below) in the first half alone against Syracuse! He had a career-high 125 yards in that game and now has 8 touchdowns on the season to lead the team. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a player with 8 touchdowns (should be 9) on only 22 catches. He is 10th in the nation with 20.41 yards per catch.
Ray-Ray McCloud is expected to play on Saturday after missing the Syracuse game with an injured ankle. Hopefully he will be able to find the confidence he had in the punt return game early in the season. As for the other banged up Tigers, they are in pretty good shape. Marcus Edmond sat out last week with an injured toe and should be back on Saturday. Cornell Powell tweaked his hamstring last week but will be able to play, as will Denzel Johnson, who tweaked his groin area last week. Adrian Baker, however, will not make his return this week. He is ready from a physical standpoint, but Dabo said it’s a matter of him getting back to mental readiness.
Finally, although the Tigers still have one more home game against South Carolina to finish the regular season, the Pitt game has been designated Senior Day, so several seniors on the team will be recognized, as well as juniors who will be graduating this year such as Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott and Mike Williams.
The Panthers are coming off a tough 51-28 loss at Miami following a back-and-forth, heartbreaking 39-36 home loss to Virginia Tech on Thursday night. They are 5-4 overall and 2-3 in the ACC, but they beat now tenth-ranked Penn State early in the season. They also lost by just one point at UNC and by 7 points at now #13 Oklahoma State.
Pitt’s strength is in its offense. They are #27 in scoring offense at 37.0 points per game and #50 in total offense (422.3 yards/game). They are a run-oriented offense, which is a stark contrast to the Syracuse team we saw last week. The Panthers are #93 in pass offense (201.9 yards/game), but they are #30 in rushing offense (220.4 yards/game), led by cancer survivor James Conner, who was ACC Player of the Year in 2014. Given that the run game is Pitt’s strength, and the Tigers’ pass defense has been far better than their run defense this season, it’s fairly obvious where the key matchup will be and how Pitt will want to attack the Clemson defense. Pitt’s offensive coordinator is Matt Canada, who was the OC at NC State last year and gave the Tigers’ defense its worst game of the season. Just as the Wolfpack had a big transfer quarterback in Jacoby Brissett last year, Pitt has a big transfer quarterback in 6’2, 225-pound Nathan Peterman, who was a backup QB at Tennessee in 2013 and 2014. He has completed 60.5% of his passes this season for 1,806 yards and has 14 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions. He is not much of a runner but 3.6 yards when he does run and has one rushing touchdown.
The heart of Pitt’s offense and team is RB James Conner. He has 712 rushing yards on the season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and 11 rushing touchdowns. He also has 15 catches for 197 yards and 2 touchdowns. They have a good TE in Scott Orndoff and a big-play WR in Jester Weah, who is #6 in the nation with 21.65 yards per catch. He has 6 touchdowns on the season. Quadree Henderson is their jet sweep guy and also a great kick returner. He has just one touchdown reception but has rushed for 3. Pitt uses a lot of option principles in their offense, and they will run a lot of shifts, motions and misdirections, so eye discipline by the Tigers’ defense will be critical, in the same way as it is when they play Georgia Tech.
Defensively, it begins and ends with redshirt senior DE Ejuan Price, who was Preseason First-Team All-ACC along with FSU DE DeMarcus Walker. Price is #3 in the nation with 9 sacks and also #3 in tackles-for-loss with 16. He is #19 in forced fumbles and had a tackle for a safety at North Carolina. Keeping the mid-season All-American out of the backfield will be priority one for the O-Line, which has done a tremendous job protecting Watson all season. In fact, the Tigers are #14 in that regard, having allowed just 11 sacks all season. The rest of Pitt’s defense, however, has left something to be desired. They are #86 in total defense, allowing 428.7 yards per game, #126 (out of 128 teams) in pass defense (317.1 yards/game) and #107 in scoring defense (34.4 points/game). However, they have been very stout against the run, allowing just 111.6 yards per game, which is #13 in the nation. So that will be another good matchup to watch, as the running game has been the weakest part of the Tigers’ offense. The Tigers have a decided advantage in the passing game. The woeful pass defense is very unusual for Pat Narduzzi, who typically had one of the best secondaries in the nation every year when he was defensive coordinator at Michigan State. Narduzzi has stubbornly stuck with his press-man coverage principles all season. Despite his corners’ struggles, he has continued to leave them on an island to stop the run, so the Tigers’ WR corps and Deshaun Watson have to be licking their chops for the opportunities they will have to exploit that in the down field passing game.
I am not expecting another shutout by the Tigers, but I do think the Tigers will be able to stop Pitt’s running game for the most part, and Peterman will have a very hard time throwing the ball against this Clemson secondary and pass rush. As alluded to, Watson and the wide receivers should have a field day if the offensive line can keep Price from wreaking havoc.
This one isn’t close for long. The Tigers pick up where they left off last week and play a relatively clean game on both sides of the ball. They go on to win their 27th game out of the last 28 and clinch their 5th Atlantic Division Title, winning 10 games for the 6th straight year. The nation’s longest home win streak is extended to 22 games in Death Valley, and Clemson holds serve with #1 Bama.
The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16, a repeat trip to the College Football Playoff and a second National Championship continues…..
CLEMSON 52 Pitt 13