Going undefeated was always the goal for Clemson this season, but if the Tigers are able to run the table and win their first national title since 1981, they will likely look back at the loss to Pitt as a blessing in disguise.
Clemson was coming off a 54-0 dominant performance against Syracuse, a game where everything seemed to go right, when the Panthers arrived at Death Valley.
Senior linebacker Ben Boulware had an uneasy feeling about Clemson’s level of focus going into the game.
“I could definitely tell some guys were getting too complacent and a little too lackadaisical, especially that Friday night,” he said. “I was talking to the team, and I could tell everybody was kind of laid back. I think everybody respected Pittsburgh and respected their game plan, but the whole situation, guys were just a little too laid back.”
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If Pitt didn’t have Clemson’s full attention going into the game, it did after the opening drive.
The Panthers went 75 yards in five plays and took an early 7-0 lead. Pitt went on to score 27 first-half points and 43 in all in the upset win. The 43 points marked the most the Tigers have given up at home since 2013.
“I felt like we got comfortable. As a defense, you can never get comfortable. You’ve got to stay hungry,” fellow senior Carlos Watkins said. “Me being a leader, I kind of let it slide, just letting the guys have a little fun, but not too much. As a leader, we got on to them. This week we were a lot more focused and it showed.”
Clemson responded with a dominant defensive effort against Wake Forest, holding the Demon Deacons to 13 points and less than 200 total yards.
Wake does not have the same offensive firepower as Pitt, but was averaging nearly 320 yards per game before being shut down by the Tigers.
“We lost. We sucked. You live from it. You grow from it,” Boulware said. “The older guys on the team did a good job of getting everybody prepared and ready for this week.”
Boulware believes the Clemson defense is refocused and ready to finish the season strong in the next three or four games. He’s thankful the Tigers are still in the top four in the college football playoff and control their destiny in their quest to play for a national title.
“We don’t want to lose, but I think a lot of the guys are grateful for it. We learned a lot from of it,” he said. “We would much rather it happen then than happen in the national championship. We definitely wanted to fix those mistakes. I think we needed that. It was definitely an eye-opener for us.”
Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables was pleased with the way his unit bounced back after playing its worst game of the season.
“To play at a really high level week-in and week-out is not easy to do. The preparation and the grind of it is not easy,” he said. “I’m really proud of all of our coaches and all of our players for the way they prepared themselves and had themselves ready to play (against Wake Forest).”