No. 2 Clemson played with fire on several occasions leading up to its game against Pitt. Saturday night at Death Valley, the Tigers finally got burned.
Panthers kicker Chris Blewitt blasted a 48-yard field goal through the uprights with six seconds remaining to lift Pitt to a 43-42 win over the Tigers.
The loss ends Clemson’s perfect season and 21-game home winning streak. Clemson had 26 consecutive wins in a non-national championship game before the loss.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in that locker room downstairs with a loss,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “I had no doubt that this was going to be a tough game. Watching this tape all week long, this is a team with some close losses and I knew they would fight us hard, so a lot of credit goes to them for making the plays they needed to win.”
The Tigers led 42-34 midway through the fourth quarter and were driving to put the game away when quarterback Deshaun Watson was intercepted in the end zone by linebacker Saleem Brightwell.
The freshman returned the ball to the Clemson 30, and the Panthers scored four plays later on a James Conner 20-yard touchdown run. The Tigers stopped the 2-point conversion attempt to maintain a two-point lead.
On the ensuing posses sion, Clemson drove 42 yards in nine plays but was stuffed on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 at the Pitt 35.
Watson had 70 pass attempts up to that point, but Clemson opted to run Wayne Gallman twice out of the jumbo package.
“We decided on third down if we didn’t get it we were going for it. Obviously, we could’ve punted it and pinned them deep, but we’ve lived and died all year and made some big plays,” Swinney said. “We didn’t get it done, and that’s on me. We had plenty of opportunities to win the game, and we didn’t do it.”
Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman, who passed for 308 yards and five touchdowns, orchestrated a six-play, 34-yard drive in 52 seconds that ended with Blewitt’s field goal.
The Tigers tried several laterals on the return before being tackled deep in their own territory to end the game.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about finishing. It’s my job to put us in position to finish, and I didn’t do that,” Swinney said. “That’s really where it starts and stops is with me. I’m very disappointed that on several opportunities we had the chance to win the game and we didn’t get it down.”
Watson completed a school record 52 attempts and threw for an ACC record 580 yards, but was picked off three times, including twice in the end zone.
His last interception came with Clemson facing a second-and-goal from the 3. A field goal on the drive would have made it a two-possession game with less than six minutes remaining.
“At the end of the day, my main focus is trying to get the ‘W.’ I just wanted to win,” Watson said of his record-setting day. “I could’ve gone 0-for-30 and 0 passing yards and get the ‘W’ and that’s all that matters. We made a lot of plays and did a lot of great plays, but at the end of the day we made a couple of mistakes that kept them in the game.”
The Tigers managed only 50 rushing yards on 25 carries with Gallman carrying the ball 18 times for 36 yards. The junior scored three touchdowns.
Clemson receiver Mike Williams finished with a career-high 15 catches for 202 yards in the loss.
Pitt running back James Conner had 132 rushing yards and a touchdown and added three catches for 57 yards and a score.
Panthers tight end Scott Orndoff was Peterman’s favorite target, catching nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns.
“I couldn’t be happier for our football team,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We went into the week saying we were going to shock the world, especially with the upsets that happened this week. We just believed.”
Blewitt missed an extra point and had a kick blocked before nailing the game-winning field goal.
Star of the game: Peterman: He was masterful, passing for 308 yards and five touchdowns without throwing an interception.
Play of the game: The Tigers were in control and set to put the game away before Brightwell’s interception. His return allowed Pitt to score in a hurry.
Stat of the game: 580: A lot of great quarterbacks have played in the ACC over the years, but Watson holds the ACC record for passing yards in a game.
Who: Clemson at Wake Forest
When: Nov. 19
Where: Winston-Salem, N.C.