This was supposed to be a festive autumn picnic. Not a bonfire.
Rather than wait until the home finale, and all the accompanying distractions, Dabo Swinney designated Saturday’s game with Pitt as Senior Day, a time for the fan base to thank quarterback Deshaun Watson and those who won’t be returning for the memories of another march to the College Football Playoffs.
Clemson was favored by more than three touchdowns. Pitt had lost four games, including last week to Miami by 23 points. This was to be for the ACC Atlantic Division and Clemson’s 10th win.
Nobody anticipated Pitt going off script and turning it into an entertaining, albeit frightening game.
The Panthers came out strong and scored first, continued to shadow Clemson.
In the first half, the teams combined for 56 points and more than 700 yards. Clemson nearly fell behind by two touchdowns when officials ruled Wayne Gallman fumbled before entering the end zone. Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead picked up the ball and ran 100 yards for a touchdown, but the decision was flipped on review and Gallman was credited with a touchdown.
Watson topped the Clemson record for single-game passing yards in the third quarter, but Pitt probed the Clemson defense for the two longest scoring passes of the season. Quarterback Nathan Peterman passed for a career-high five touchdowns, four in the first half, and running back James Conner looked nearly as powerful as he did before a bout with cancer two years ago.
“Man, they played a heck of a ball game,” Swinney said. “Defensively, they had us off-balance all night. First half, they had us on our heels.”
When a fourth-down play at the Pitt 36 in the final minute didn’t work, the Panthers pushed the ball to the Clemson 35, where a 48-yard field goal from the right hash by Chris Blewitt was good with six seconds to play.
Watson, who finished with an ACC-record 580 passing yards and set a school record with 52 completions on 70 passes, played after bruising his right shoulder last week. His three interceptions helped keep the game closer than expected. Two on the doorstep of the end zone were the most damaging, particularly one in the fourth quarter returned 70 yards and resulting in a touchdown that made it 42-40 and set up Pitt’s final push.
“Plenty of opportunities to win that game and we didn’t get it done. That’s a hundred percent on me,” Swinney said. “We had a chance to put the game away, and they stopped us.”
So, there won’t be a Heisman Trophy celebration – 13 interceptions tend to kill those aspirations. Clemson’s status for the College Football Playoffs took a huge hit, though Swinney tried to put a smiley face on the situation, calling “a stepping stone or a stumbling block.”
“We still control our destiny,” he said. “We can’t let this game beat us twice.”
By beating Louisville and Florida State, the Tigers can still clinch the division and return to the ACC Championship game by beating Wake Forest. But the invitation to the playoffs might get lost in the mail unless Clemson can clean up its act the next three weeks.