This college football season has been defined by an absence of chaos. We should all thank Pittsburgh for providing a change of pace.
The Panthers stunned No. 2 Clemson at Tiger Stadium on Saturday, dealing the Tigers their first loss and ending the nation’s longest active home winning streak at 21 games. After missing an extra point and having another field goal blocked earlier in the game, Pittsburgh senior kicker Chris Blewitt drilled a 48-yard field goal with six seconds remaining to give the Panthers a 43–42 win.
Clemson seemed on the verge of icing the game late in the fourth quarter when quarterback Deshaun Watson drove the Tigers to the Panthers’ three-yard line already leading 42–34. But Pittsburgh linebacker Saleem Brightwell intercepted an ill-advised short pass from Watson (his third of the game) and ran it back 70 yards. Panthers star running back James Conner raced 20 yards into the end zone for a touchdown four plays later.
The Tigers were hurt by two controversial second-half penalties (one holding call, one personal foul call) that helped keep Pittsburgh within striking distance, but the finale nonetheless marked a stark contrast for a Clemson team that has thrived in crunch time this season. From their six-point win over No. 6 Louisville in October to their overtime victory against NC State two weeks later to their three-point triumph at Florida State on Oct. 29, the Tigers have displayed a penchant for getting results with their backs pressed against the wall.
They faced a similar scenario on Saturday, only this time, their opponent showed more resolve with the game on the line. The interception from Watson, in particular, was a crushing blow. Though the dual-threat star set a single-game ACC passing record Saturday with 580 yards, that pick drove Clemson from the brink of a potentially game-clinching score to a two-point toss up. Pitt took advantage of Watson’s critical error on a Senior Day in which a coronation seemed probable. (Coach Dabo Swinney announced this week that Watson will enter the NFL draft after this season).
Fortunately for Clemson, this loss doesn’t eliminate it from the College Football Playoff race. A win over the Panthers would have sealed the ACC Atlantic division, but the Tigers can do that next week with a victory at Wake Forest. The Cardinals are the only other team in the division with one conference defeat, but Clemson owns the tiebreaker over coach Bobby Petrino’s team by virtue of their win over Louisville on Oct. 1.
Assuming the Tigers right the ship next week and beat the Demon Deacons, they probably won’t have much trouble dispatching the ACC Coastal winner in the conference title game. That division’s leader, No. 14 Virginia Tech, suffered a double-digit loss at home to Georgia Tech on Saturday.
Still, it’s hard to focus on the specifics of Clemson’s path to the final four after a defeat like this. Saturday marked a continuation of a season of puzzling play in which the Tigers stoop to their level of competition and find themselves sweating out inferior opponents. The difference against Pitt was that Clemson wasn’t able to ultimately pull out the win. There are shades of 2014 Florida State here, and everyone remembers what happened to the Seminoles when they met Oregon in the first version of the CFP.
A similar fate could well befall Clemson. The Tigers are loaded on both sides of the ball, they feature a Heisman Trophy contender and projected first-round draft pick at quarterback and they have playoff experience. But it increasingly looks as if they won’t recapture the form that enabled them to reach the title game last season.