Pitt will have hands full with Clemson backfield

The Pitt defense will face its toughest challenge all season on Saturday. The Panthers are traveling to Death Valley to take on No. 4 Clemson, a team that features perhaps the best backfield in all of college football.

Clemson is the top scoring offense in the ACC and it is fueled by the best passing attack in the conference. Trevor Lawrence is a generational talent that runs the show. He has not played in a game since October 24th, as he missed the Notre Dame game after testing positive for COVID. The Tigers followed that up with a bye and had their game against Florida State unexpectedly cancelled at the last minute due to COVID as well.

The long layoff shouldn’t bother the Heisman hopeful. He has thrown for 8,700 yards in his career and 83 touchdowns. Lawrence guided Clemson to a national championship in 2018, and had them back in the title game last season. He is the frontrunner to being the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL Draft and Pitt is well aware what they will be going up against on Saturday.

“Well he’s tall, he’s long. He’s really, really smart as far as where he goes with the ball,” Pitt defensive coordinator Randy Bates said. “He doesn’t make a lot of bad decisions. I mean he’s fast and boy I’m really impressed, I know I was when he was a freshman, but he’s not any slower. And he’s got a lot of velocity on the ball. He really puts the ball where he needs to be. Other than that, I don’t think he’s very good.”

Kidding aside, Lawrence is everything he’s been billed as, and perhaps more. Pat Narduzzi has been coaching at the Division-1 college football since 1990 and he believes Lawrence is as good as any quarterback he’s faced.

“I’ve seen a lot of great quarterbacks, through the years here and he’s up there with the top three or four,” Narduzzi said of Lawrence. “I mean Ben Roethlisberger was pretty good when we faced him at Miami of Ohio back in 2002. I look at what he did that year that we played against him. He’s like Ben, he’s explosive.”

Pitt’s key on Saturday will be to put pressure on the Clemson quarterback. The Panthers employ one of the best pass rushes in the country, as they top the country in total sacks with 40. Senior defensive end Patrick Jones leads the team with eight sacks, and knows the key is to apply pressure, something he always tries to do no matter the opponent.

“That’s always the key to get pressure on the quarterbacks, so with him especially just being such a great player, that’s definitely something that we’re going to have to do,” Jones said of how to attack the Tigers offense.

It’s not just Lawrence, the Tigers have weapons all across the board, but senior running back Travis Etienne is perhaps the second most important player to this Clemson offense. Etienne is a senior and is the school’s all-time leading rusher with over 4,600 yards and 66 touchdowns in his career.

In the 2018 ACC Championship game, Etienne torched the Pitt defense for 156 and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. So this team has not forgotten what he can do after seeing it up close and personal two seasons ago.

“He’s definitely a great player,” Jones said of Etienne. “He’s a special player, you watch on film and he’s got a burst that you don’t see out of anybody for real – he’s different. But we’re going to keep doing what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep stopping the run.”

Pitt is among the top teams in the country at stopping the run. The Panthers surrender just 93.2 yards per game on the ground. The thing with Etienne is he can beat you through the air as well and that is something the Panthers are being mindful of heading into Saturday.

After not being much of a pass catcher to start his career, he has caught 37 passes in each of the past two seasons. Clemson’s ability to get him in space like that has made him that much more explosive and difficult to defend.

“Boy they get you matched up with him in different situations,” Bates said. “I saw him against a corner in the one game and he just ran right by him.”

Senior safety Damar Hamlin may be matched up with Etienne at times, and he looked to the NFL to draw a comparison to the Clemson tailback.

“He reminds me of an Alvin Kamara type,” Hamlin said. “He catches the ball well, explosive out of the backfield, he’s a one of a kind player for sure.”

Pitt will have its hands full on Saturday, but the Panthers will be looking to ride a slight wave of momentum going into the contest. Pitt has won the past two games convincingly, outscoring Florida State and Virginia Tech by a combined total of 88-31.

Hamlin believes the team just needs to continue to approach Saturday’s game the same way they have the past two. Pitt has played with emotion and the seniors on the team have started to really elevate their games.

“Same as last week: just focused, head down, taking it one day at a time,” Hamlin said of the game plan this week. “Today the word of the day was enthusiasm, so we just worked on having enthusiasm, like I said just running to the ball and just cherishing all of these moments we’ve got left, especially the seniors just cherishing everything we have left here.”

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