Well, here we are, Clemson Nation. For the first time in a long time, the Clemson Tigers are underdogs in a regular season game. While some oddsmakers might have originally set spreads that made Clemson the favorite, I think most now show Pitt as a 3- or 3.5-point favorite. I am not sure of the last time Clemson was a regular season underdog, but I am pretty sure it was during 2017 when Kelly Bryant was the starting quarterback.
While I expect we will see much of the same from the fanbase (only a huge Clemson win would make everyone happy), I tend to think that for me, reality is really setting in that Clemson shouldn’t win this game, and it is the first time I have really felt this way all season. If this game were to end with a Clemson win by a field goal, it would feel like a victory. The Syracuse game didn’t feel that way. Obviously, I would be disappointed in a blowout loss, but if the Tigers put up a fight in a close loss, I dare say I would feel better about that than I have following some of the wins we’ve seen this year. This just goes to show how weird everything about this season has been so far.
Coach Swinney confirmed that Hunter Rayburn would not play again this week, so I would expect Mason Trotter to start at center again. I feel like we have four competent options on the offensive line for this week’s game. Problem is, of course, we need five. I haven’t really hidden my opinion of Will Putnam’s performances as a starter – I would prefer someone else. Like most fans who saw his performance in the spring game, I had high hopes for Marcus Tate, but he hasn’t performed well as a guard this season either (maybe he should stick to the tackle position, even if it means he is a rotational guy instead of a starter). I personally hope Paul Tchio gets the nod at right guard this weekend, but as stated before, it would merely give Clemson the best available group on the offensive line. It won’t mean the line suddenly becomes above average.
With Ladson injured, and Williams opting to have surgery, it looks like Ajou Ajou will get another start. I’m an Ajou fan and I hope we see him begin to find more success with more playing time. The coaches have noted that he needs to be a better blocker and have better awareness without the ball, and I hope he can improve in that area. He is a beast and is strong enough to be a physical presence in the run game, for his fellow receivers and more importantly, for DJU and the running backs.
I am almost at the point where I can say I’m not worried too much about the running back and tight end positions. It sounds like Will Shipley is close to coming back, but not quite ready, so expect Kobe Pace and Phil Mafah to handle the backfield again. I like what we have seen from both, and I feel they will continue to make incremental improvements. Davis Allen had a good game against Syracuse, but consistency has been the problem for tight ends in the last few seasons. A good outing is often followed by a forgettable one. Here’s hoping Allen can shake that sleep.
Defensively, I think the Tigers need to keep doing what they are doing. The defensive line needs to step up Saturday, especially Xavier Thomas and Miles Murphy. The defensive backfield will need the line to apply pressure to Pitt QB Kenny Pickett and disrupt his timing. If Clemson is to win this game, the corners and safeties will need to create turnovers, and defensive score wouldn’t hurt either.
Finally, any underdog that hopes to get a road victory needs the special teams to be special. Without Shipley, it doesn’t look like we can hope for much more than efficient fair catches when we are receiving the ball. On the other hand, BT Potter has been solid for Clemson so far this year, and they will need points off his foot to win this game. He’ll need to be at his best – kicking in Pittsburgh isn’t easy, even when it isn’t cold. Right now, the forecast says high of 57 with 5-10 MPH winds. The guy Clemson really needs to step up is Will Spiers, and no, I’m not talking about his arm. The Tigers need distance and accuracy from their punter. Even if the offense can put together a few first downs, eventually the Tigers will need Spiers to push the Panthers backwards, or to pin them deep. Clemson can’t afford shanks and 23-yard punts.
First game at Heinz Field! Go Tigers!!!