Clemson Football

Count 'em up

December 2, 2018

CHARLOTTE -- A downpour for much of Saturday night made for a bunch of unhappy campers inside Bank of America Stadium.

Well, unless you were a Clemson fan.

The moods amongst drenched Clemson fans quickly changed once they caught a glimpse of the orange and white confetti that rained from the skies.

No. 2 Clemson put an exclamation point on their perfect regular season, moving to 13-0, with its 42-10 dismantling of the Pitt Panthers. Another Clemson Championship, as they say.

"These guys have done an amazing job of working toward those things. Just unbelievable. I've never really been a part of a team like this.”
- Dabo Swinney

“13-0. It's just been a special year. It's been a historic year,” Swinney said after the win. “I mean, these guys, we always have our team goals. We sat down, and we talked about some kind of goals within the goals. These guys have done an amazing job of working toward those things. Just unbelievable. I've never really been a part of a team like this.”

Clemson becomes the first ACC team to win four consecutive ACC championships outright. The past four years have been such a blur, almost as much of a blur as Saturday night’s game.

The Tigers’ offense piled together 419 total yards, 301 of which came on the ground. Clemson is only the second team this season to rush for over 300 yards against Pitt’s physical defense (The Panthers gave up 320 to Georgia Tech at the beginning of the season).

“I thought the game itself... sloppy, grindy, awful footing, just wet,” Swinney said. “But just a lot of fun.”

And what Clemson fan out there can’t have fun while watching No. 9 touch the ball?

Clemson was led by its coveted ACC Player of the Year, Travis Etienne, who accounted for 156 yards rushing and two touchdowns on only 12 carries. You could say he ran away with the MVP award.

Clemson Sports Talk
Travis Etienne and the Clemson Tigers raced away from Pitt in the ACC Championship, 42-10.

And you knew he was going to have a big night once he sprinted out of the starting blocks.

If you blinked, you would have missed his first score, a 75-yard run on the first play from scrimmage to the house. It was the fastest first score in ACC Championship Game history.

It was the first of three 1-play scoring drives for the Tigers. Each a gut-punch to a brutally tough Pittsburgh team.

After Isaiah Simmons forced a fumble, and Christian Wilkins scooped the ball and returned it to the 3-yard line, Etienne powered his way into the end zone on the next play. His second touchdown of the game was his 22nd total touchdown of the season, breaking C.J. Spiller’s single-season school record of 21 from 2009.

Who would’ve thought that record would be broken not even ten years later?

After two carries, Etienne had 78 yards and two touchdowns. In last year’s ACC Championship against Miami, the Tigers had 77 yards rushing total.

After two carries, Etienne had 78 yards and two touchdowns. In last year’s ACC Championship against Miami, the Tigers had 77 yards rushing total.

And that’s kind of what this year’s title game felt like - the 2017 victory over Miami where Clemson flexed its dominance and showed it was ready to step into College Football Playoff mode.

But Pittsburgh wouldn’t go away quietly like the Hurricanes, and their chains did. After falling behind 14 points early, the Panthers rallied back to get within four points after a Qadree Ollison touchdown on the goal line.

The duo of Ollison and Darrin Hall were the bright spots from Pittsburgh’s offense, both combining for 142 yards on 27 carries.

But other than that, Clemson’s defense completely bounced back after last weekend’s performance. And after that touchdown drive, Clemson’s offense decided it would give the Panthers a taste of their own medicine.

A 45-yard run from Etienne set Clemson up pretty, inside Pittsburgh territory. Etienne and Tavien Feaster, who finished with 30 yards on five carries, traded runs until Clemson got to the 5-yard line. Trevor Lawrence found Tee Higgins on the first pass of the drive to push the lead to 21-10.

The offense had its struggles at times after starting the game 0-for-4 on third downs. Lawrence had a steady showing, throwing for 118 yards and two touchdowns on a 12-of-24 clip. It wasn’t like Lawrence needed to be spectacular with the way Clemson was able to run the ball, but he did come up big in spots in the second half as Clemson began to pull away.

Clemson’s defense responded the only way they know how. After giving up 600 yards of total offense to South Carolina, 510 of which came through the air, the Tigers only allowed five passing yards through three quarters.

Eight passing yards total after giving up five touchdowns through the air the week before.

Clemson Sports Talk
Clemson’s defense held Pitt to just eight yards passing in the game.

Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett’s eight yards came from a 4-of-16 clip. It was a tough night to be a Pickett as he nearly threw a pick-six just before halftime to A.J. Terrell. The 31-yard interception return set up Lawrence’s second touchdown pass to Higgins, this time from ten yards, out with 29 seconds left in the first half.

The defense forced seven three-and-outs on the evening, four of those drives went for negative yardage. They also forced three turnovers, which led to 21 points.

The Panthers only gained 200 yards of offense, which is a new ACC Championship Game record surpassing Clemson’s 214 yards given up against Miami last season, on 64 total plays and were 3-of-17 on third downs.

Coming back from injury, linebacker Tre Lamar returned in a big way. He led Clemson’s defense with nine tackles, six of them solo, and two were for a loss. The defense as a whole had nine tackles for loss and two sacks.

The Tigers opted to open up the playbook when they decided they wanted to pull away. After a 21-yard strike to Higgins, Lawrence found Justyn Ross on a flea-flicker two plays later as soon as the defense was sucked in by the run threat.

Ross’ 38-yard completion set up a one-yard Adam Choice touchdown two plays later to extend the lead to 35-10 in the fourth quarter. Ross finished the day with two catches for 70 yards.

By the way - Ross, Higgins, and Hunter Renfrow or Amari Rodgers being on the field at the same time is a nightmare for opposing secondaries.

The play that summed up Pittsburgh’s night was a fourth-and-5 where the offense had no choice but to go for it late in the fourth quarter. Pickett was going to drop back to pass, but fumbled the shotgun snap to hand Clemson the ball back. Lyn-J Dixon scored six plays later from three yards out in garbage time.

Amidst all of the drama Clemson faced toward the beginning of the season, still, Swinney found himself raising a trophy in Charlotte yet again. It’s fitting that the win for these seniors came against the one team they lost to at home during their career.

In these championship games, Clemson has shown that it comes out with a different kind of focus and readiness than it has shown during the regular season.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey. It’s gone really, really fast, but we’re really just getting going,” Swinney said. “We got a lot left to do.”

And from 2015 to 2018, the end result has been the same. But each season has been different, which is what Swinney enjoys the most about each of his teams. He noted immediately postgame that he wouldn’t have four conference titles in a row if it weren’t for the first three.

He also wouldn’t have been standing on that stage if it weren’t for Athletic Director, Terry Don Phillips, taking a chance on him ten years to the day by making him full-time head coach.

Each journey has been an incredible story. The dream seems to get larger by the day. But after the confetti rained down, and the trophies were handed out, Swinney noted that there’s work left to be done moving forward to a fourth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance.

“It’s been an unbelievable journey. It’s gone really, really fast, but we’re really just getting going,” Swinney said. “We got a lot left to do.”

Although it may feel like a blur, Clemson’s reign in the Queen City doesn’t seem like it’s going to slow down any time soon.

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