Can Clemson Shake Off the Rust, Disappointment Against Pitt?

While Clemson's culture is obviously strong, the coaches have worked hard to keep the players focused and improving after last week's disappointment.
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It's been 21 days since Clemson played a football game. 

For many Tigers, it's likely the longest in-season stretch they've ever gone without that competition. For star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who tested positive for COVID-19 in late October, it's been even longer. 

So there's no real blueprint on how to essentially halt a season and then ramp back up again. But that's the case with many, many things in 2020. This year has demanded adaptability in a way sports (and life) has never seen. 

How Clemson handles such a long layoff and the disappointment of having last week's game called off by Florida State is unknown. There were a lot of emotions stemming from that decision both on the roster and with the coaching staff. 

"We're always preaching eyes or forward and windshield mentality," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "That was a moment to apply it for sure. There was a lot of uncertainty, probably anger, frustration. You can kind of just feel it in the air I guess, whether it's accurate or not, but really wanted our guys to take their attention to what's literally sitting in front of them, what's next."

Next up is Pitt, who comes to Memorial Stadium today for a 3:30 p.m. ACC showdown. While Clemson's culture is obviously strong, the coaches have worked hard to keep the players focused and get over last week's disappointment.

That's football in 2020. Many teams have gone through this with cancellations and postponements. But Venables brought up an interesting perspective. Players and coaches do what they do because of their love of competition. Whether that's against yourself, teammates or another team, it's what drives them to work hard and sacrifice, Venables says. 

Given that theory, Clemson has been doing that every day for the last three weeks, shaking off a loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 7 and just waiting to get back in the win column. It should serve them well when they finally get out there today. 

Venables said the team certainly got better after that defeat and shored up some areas both from individuals and schematically. 

"We're excited to have an opportunity to go show it," Venables said. 

The Tigers also hope they're finally healthy. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney feels like they are, and Venables said that's a silver lining they've preached to the team all week, a chance to heal and be prepared for the final two regular-season games before a potential rematch with Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game. 

For that to happen, Clemson can't overlook Pitt, a team that has a capable QB in Kenny Pickett and a defense that leads the nation in sacks. There could very well be obvious rust from the layoff for the Tigers. 

Rhythm on offense with Lawrence back at the helm instead of D.J. Uiagalelei is something to watch. Could the Tigers rely on short passes early to get the offense going? The offensive line also needs to show that it put the extra practice time without a game to good use and produce in the run game.

Defensively, tackling has been an issue throughout college football. Without a normal offseason and fall camps and practices that have been ruled by strict protocols and guidelines, this year just hasn't been the same from a fundamental standpoint. 

The betting market might be reflecting these concerns. The spread opened with Clemson favored by 24.5 and has since been bet down to -22.5. The Tigers are way more talented than Pitt, and the oddsmakers saw this as more than 24 points to start the week, so it's easy to assume the long layoff has people second-guessing the line. 

Regardless, Clemson should win this game. How comfortable it turns out to be will be determined on how well this team executes coming off the long layoff.