Paws Up: Travis Etienne
Most people probably expected Clemson to move the ball against Pitt, but how many people would have predicted a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game?
On Saturday, Travis Etienne demonstrated all of the qualities that have made him such a dynamic and effective runner this season, and no play came close to showcasing all of those talents at once like the 75-yard touchdown. Etienne showed an excellent level of patience and awareness as he waited for a hole to open up in the middle of the offensive line. Finding none, he utilized what is perhaps his most lethal ability, his acceleration, to burst around to the outside of the field and break into open turf.
The offensive line deserves a tremendous amount of credit as well, as evidenced by the fact that the Tigers allowed just one sack throughout the game, and that nearly every back who ran the ball for Clemson found success at some point in the game. To perform so well was no easy task either, as Pitt’s defensive line is in the top-half of the country in terms of total sacks and has had a respectable rush defense.
Etienne’s production was not just limited to the one big play, though. By the end of the game, he had accumulated 156 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, for a whopping 13 yards-per-carry.
It would certainly help to streamline this analysis if I could focus on just one of Etienne’s traits, but doing so would seem like a disservice to the rest. He has patience, agility, a dangerous top speed and world-class strength and acceleration. Put all of those into one players, and you might be looking at a future Heisman candidate.
Paws Down: Third-down offense
As has been the case in most of Clemson’s games this year, finding aspects to nitpick can be a tall task when the team wins by 32 points. Such a large margin of victory does not mean the Tigers played a perfect game, though.
The team struggled on offense to convert third-downs, converting just four of their 12 attempts. The weather on the field might have had something to do with this, the rain mucking up the ground and making the ball slick and hard to grab.
Matters were not helped by the fact that Trevor Lawrence had one of his poorer performances of the season, throwing for 118 yards and completing 12 of his 24 passes.
The conditions of the game lent themselves to a slower, sloppier type of game (which is the kind of game that did end up unfolding). Regardless, one would expect a team with the kind of weapons like Clemson has to be able to convert more than 33 percent of their attempts.
Paws Up: Defensive intensity
The Clemson defense continues to dominate in almost every way.
After giving up over 500 yards to South Carolina, the Tiger secondary had a bounce-back game and allowed only eight (yes, eight) passing yards throughout the entire game. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett only completed four of his 16 pass attempts thanks to lockdown efforts by cornerback AJ Terrell and linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Tre Lamar.
Simmons is one of the more versatile defenders on the Tigers’ roster; able to play in coverage against athletic receivers or on the line of scrimmage against larger offensive linemen. On Saturday, Simmons made his mark primarily on the line blitzing the quarterback. He contributed seven total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a fumble that was picked up by Christian Wilkins and was nearly returned for a touchdown. Simmons’ unique combination of size and strength make him an asset that will be invaluable as the team heads into the playoffs.
Lamar was just as effective at pressuring the quarterback, recording a game-high nine tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss. Lamar has been the unsung hero of the Tigers’ linebacker corps all season and shows no sign of slowing down.
AJ Terrell benefitted from the pressure caused by players like Lamar and Simmons, but also made a distinct impact on his own merit. He recorded the game’s only interception, which came near the end of the first half. He read Pickett’s eyes perfectly and was in position before the ball even got there to make the interception.
With Clemson’s defensive identity still intact heading into the playoffs and the secondary’s flaws seemingly remedied, the Tigers will present one of the toughest challenges that an opposing offensive can face.
Paws Down: Quarterback Passing
As mentioned previously, Trevor Lawrence had one of his poorer performances of the season against the Panthers on Saturday.
His 118 passing yards are the lowest he’s recorded in a game since his performance against Louisville, a game in which the Tigers put up 77 points and won without much need for Lawrence to perform spectacularly.
The same could be said for this game, but there were multiple moments where Lawrence seemed out of sorts with his pocket awareness and on his throws.
On a third down in the first quarter, Lawrence appeared to get spooked by pressure that wasn’t really coming. The perceived pressure had Lawrence rolling out of the pocket, completing just a one-yard pass that failed to convert the third down.
Lawrence also missed some of his throws, often throwing behind his receivers or delivering the ball too low for the receivers to stoop down and grab. The conditions of the field almost certainly had to have played an effect in this, as the ball would have been wet and slick from the rain, making it harder to grasp and throw as accurately as Lawrence is used to.
Of course, the Tigers still won by a wide margin so Lawrence’s shortcomings were not disastrous. Plus, every player is allowed to have an off-day at some point; especially when that player is still a 19 year-old true freshman. When those off-days do pop up, you just have to hope that the rest of the team is there to pull you through and on Saturday, they were.