CHARLOTTE, NC (WIS) - The road to the ACC Championship has been an extremely familiar one for the Clemson Tigers.
Dabo Swinney’s squad have all but made Charlotte their second home as they’ve won the last three ACC titles at Bank of America Stadium over the last three seasons. This year, they look to make history as the only team to capture four straight conference championships in ACC history.
In order for the Tigers to make history, they’ll have to get past the Pittsburgh Panthers.
“Pitt is a tough, physical team. If you know anything about Pat (Narduzzi), man, that's kind of who he is,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “His team epitomizes everything that I think he stands for and really has in his whole coaching career.”
Pitt, who enters the ACC title game looking to bounce back from a 24-3 loss to Miami, averages 28 points per game. They boast two backs who can be dangerous ball carriers against any defense. Qadree Ollison has 1,134 yards and 10 touchdowns while Darrin Hall has 935 yards and nine touchdowns for the Panthers.
“They just kind of hammer you,” Swinney explained. “Three runs, bam, bam, bam, here comes some play-action shot. Everything they want to do is be efficient in the run game. Everything is going through that. A lot of shifts, a lot of motions, a lot of trades that force you to have to be very disciplined in how you line up.”
At quarterback, the Panthers rely on Kenny Pickett. The sophomore has thrown for 1,825 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. One of his favorite weapons in the passing game is Maurice Ffrench. The junior wide receiver is second on the team with 30 receptions for 466 yards, but he has a team-high six touchdown catches.
“They do a great job in coordinating their offense,” Swinney said. “You think we're going to turn around, hand it off. But they create angles, edges, extra gaps. How you fit is that critical. It's not just the front level, it's the second and third level, your backers, your run support from the secondary, everybody being on the same page. If you don't do it right, you don't communicate it right, you don't have your eyes on the right things, they're going to expose you.”
Defensively, Pittsburgh surrenders nearly 400 yards and just under 28 points per game. Still, the Tigers have no intention of overlooking the Panthers’ defensive unit.
“They're going to challenge us in every regard,” Swinney said. “Defensively, they're in your face. Linebackers are downhill. They're pressed outside. Safeties are downhill. They're incredibly disciplined. They know their system. They don't make a lot of busts. They get after you.”
The Pitt defense will have their work cut out for them. Clemson is fifth in the nation in scoring posting 45.7 points per game. With weapons like Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, and Tee Higgins in their fast-paced, high-octane offense, the Panthers understand stopping the Tigers will be one of their toughest challenges yet.
On offense, the work won’t be much easier for Pitt. The Panthers will face one of the nation’s best defenses. The Tigers yield 14 points and just over 283 yards per game. If the Panthers hope to have a shot at defeating the Tigers, they’ll have to start fast and find a way to keep the pressure on the defense.
“Yeah, I think it will be a big Clemson crowd,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “I guarantee that, just being a drive up the road. But it's going to be important, a fast start. Again, we can have a slow start and still get it done. I never sit there and say, Guys, we need to get a fast start or watch out.”
Clemson takes on Pitt at 8 p.m. in Charlotte at Bank of America Stadium.