It’s been nearly three years since Pitt arrived at Clemson as a more than three-touchdown underdog before stunning the Tigers by a score of 43-42 on Nov. 12, 2016.
One of the key members of that Pitt coaching staff will be back on the visiting sideline at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium this weekend, this time as a head coach.
Wofford coach Josh Conklin, in his second season leading the Terriers, was the defensive coordinator at Pitt when the Panthers pulled off the monumental upset against the Tigers in 2016. That loss remains Clemson’s most recent home loss. The fourth-ranked Tigers have won 20 consecutive games at Death Valley since.
“It was an exciting day. We played well on offense. Defensively we got a few stops when we needed to there late in the game and a couple of turnovers. But pretty magical,” Conklin told The State this week. “It was kind of a magical day just in terms of our program at that time and where we were at.”
Former Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 580 yards and three touchdowns against the Panthers, but he also threw three interceptions. Clemson struggled to find running room, finishing with 50 yards on 25 carries, and Pitt’s defense made enough plays to help the Panthers escape with a win.
Offensively Pitt had a surprising amount of success against Brent Venables’ defense as quarterback Nathan Peterman threw for 308 yards, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. And running back James Conner had 132 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Even with Pitt playing near perfect and Clemson having its share of struggles, the Panthers still needed a 48-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt in the final seconds to pull out the victory.
“It’s almost impossible. It’s a daunting task. The fans, the environment, the atmosphere. It’s an intimidating place to play,” Conklin said. “They’ve got a huge fan base that’s behind them 100 percent, and you’ve got to figure out a way to take them out of it by kind of slowing down the game, and for us especially, trying to run the ball as much as we can and create some big plays. ... It’s a big task down there.”
Wofford defensive backs coach Rob Greene was a graduate assistant at Pitt during that 2016 game. It remains one of his favorite coaching memories.
“What it takes is outstanding execution on offense, defense and special teams. It takes them helping you out a little bit, I think,” Greene said. “Not very many people go in there and win. ... You just have to go in there and know your margin for error is super small.”
Wofford’s margin for error this weekend will be even smaller than Pitt’s was in 2016 if the Terriers want to have a chance to hang around.
Wofford has won five consecutive games to move to 5-2 (4-1) on the season, and the Terriers are in the thick of the Southern Conference race. Still, the FCS program hasn’t seen anything this season like it will face Saturday. This week’s game will be partly about trying to find a way to pull off the biggest upset of the college football season and partly about thinking ahead to some bigger goals down the road.
“I think you owe it to your football team and obviously we owe it to Clemson to go down there and think that we’re going to win the game and give them the best game we can for as long as we can. We understand it’s a tall task,” Conklin said. “All of that being said, the goal that we had at the beginning of the season was not to beat an FBS team. The goal was to win the Southern Conference championship.”
So what will this Wofford team, which is an even bigger underdog than that Pitt squad in 2016, have to do to have a chance Saturday?
“I know they’re going to score some points. They’re going to move the football. What we’ve got to do as a team is we’ve got to figure out a way to get off the field on third down, which is really hard to do against those guys. That’s going to be a big deal,” Conklin said. “And then we’ve got to try to find a way to create some turnovers for ourselves on defense, get the ball back to our offense. But it’s going to come down to time management, clock management for us. We’re going to try to grind out first downs, two first downs, three first downs and a punt is not always a bad thing. We’re going to try to keep it close as long as we can.”