CHARLOTTE — It was going to take an upset of epic proportions for Pittsburgh's 7-5 football team to march into Charlotte and stop Clemson from winning its fourth straight ACC Championship and in turn, its fourth straight College Football Playoff berth.
The Panthers were going to need a miracle on the weekend of the 10-year anniversary of head coach Dabo Swinney's hiring — and a way to stop Clemson sophomore running back Travis Etienne early.
They got neither.
Instead, Clemson's senior class was hoisting its fourth ACC Championship trophy in as many years thanks to a 42-10 victory and Etienne, the ACC's Player of the Year, was standing on the stage thanking his offensive line for helping make him the game's Most Valuable Player after a 12-carry, 156-yard, two-touchdown performance. The Panthers threw for just eight yards the entire night.
With the win, the Tigers, as expected, are now bound for another CFP appearance as almost certainly the No. 2 seed and will learn of their bowl destination and opponent at noon Sunday on ESPN.
Clemson is the first team in the ACC's 66-season history to to win four consecutive outright ACC titles, the Tigers are the first Power 5 team to win four straight conference titles since Florida did it in the 1990s and the senior class now has an ACC-record 53 wins to its name.
Now it's on to the next step — one Clemson is no stranger to these days.
"Ten years ago, this was a very emotional night for me because I got the opportunity to be the head coach at Clemson on this day. Ten years later, it's still an emotional night for different reasons," Swinney said. "It's amazing the journey that we've been on. As I told the team, we're not in this position if it wasn't for what took place before us, '15, '16, '17, to give this team an opportunity. Just an awesome night."
What went right
- By scoring just 13 seconds into the game on a 75-yard Etienne run, Clemson took its initiative to start fast to a whole new level and demoralized Pittsburgh immediately. When Etienne is clicking and running as viciously as he does, he becomes essentially unstoppable and among Clemson's greatest weapons. Swinney and Clemson co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott have both encouraged Etienne to be more patient behind his blocks and not put unnecessary pressure on himself to be the hero every time. Saturday, Etienne was incredibly efficient, averaging 13 yards per carry.
"When he gets out on the field, he runs with desperation and I think that's what's allowed him to step in this early in his career and put up the numbers that he has," Elliott said. "I think he does have another level. He has still got to grow physically. He's nowhere near ... he really hasn't scratched the surface of how much good weight he can put on."
- Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables has said all season that although linebacker Isaiah Simmons continues to be a work in progress, he essentially has a limitless ceiling once he figures out the ins and outs of playing linebacker on an everyday basis. That is in large part thanks to Simmons' speed. Simmons, who was a safety prior to this season, showed up big for the Tigers early when he forced a fumble that defensive tackle Christian Wilkins scooped up and returned for 18 yards in the first quarter. That put Clemson on the 3-yard line, which allowed the Tigers to hand the ball off to Etienne and let him do his thing for the second touchdown of the night.
- After a sluggish end to the first quarter and beginning to the second, Clemson put the pieces together before halftime. A.J. Terrell, one of Clemson's most productive members of the secondary, picked off Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett with about 30 seconds remaining in the half, which set up freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence to hit Tee Higgins for another score heading into the break with some momentum.
"When I saw the ball, it looked like ... it came in a little slow," Terrell said. "Happy I got it."
- Clemson was efficient with its scoring drives: three touchdowns came on the first play of drives and two of those one-play scores came in five seconds of time or less.
"I've got to give our offensive staff and really our analysts and GAs, they've done a great job of self-scouting — really kind of going back and looking at our first 10 or 11 games and seeing maybe what kind of tendencies we have and really trying to change that up," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "We did that tonight. I think we had some big plays off of that and a lot of that comes from our staff behind the scenes outside of our five full-time guys. Some of the big plays we had today were some of the plays those guys suggested based off our tendencies we had earlier in the season."
- Clemson perfectly executed a flea flicker on the final play of the third quarter that resulted in a 38-yard pass from Lawrence to flashy freshman receiver Justyn Ross. It was yet another glimpse of Lawrence playing beyond his years and it put the Tigers on the 2-yard line to open the fourth quarter. Moments later, running back Adam Choice punched in the score.
"We worked on that this week," Lawrence said. "It was awesome."
What went wrong
- Despite the fast start, Clemson noticeably tapered off late in the first quarter and early in the second quarter — struggling on both sides of the ball. Facing fourth down on the Pittsburgh 19 with about six minutes left in the first quarter, Clemson decided to go for it instead of kick the field goal. Lawrence couldn't hit freshman receiver Derion Kendrick and the Panthers took over on downs. Additionally, the Tigers went three and out on their next two possessions.
- Defensively, Clemson allowed a 26-yard run midway through the second quarter to splashy running back Qadree Ollison, who moments later scored on a 1-yard run to cut Clemson's lead to 14-10.
- Swinney has said several times this season he wants his team to be largely defined by what it does on special teams, but reality says Clemson is going to have to figure out its punting issues. The Tigers need more from redshirt sophomore Will Spiers. Spiers had an ugly 15-yard punt in the first quarter that had him on the receiving end of an earful from Swinney.
- The Tigers' struggles on third down returned. Converting two of seven third downs in the first half is not going to get it done in the College Football Playoff and converting four of 12 on the night won't either.
"I think the biggest thing is we were in third and long too much and I think it really comes down to first and second down. We didn't execute," Scott said. "We had some throws that we either had some drops or kind of got us behind the chains a little bit. Third and long is hard to execute in a dry game and especially when it's wet out there, it makes it a little more difficult. The way that you improve third down is by having a better first and second down and I feel like we did that better in the second half to give ourselves a little bit of a better chance to be in a better position."
When Clemson scored after Terrell's interception just before halftime, it was all the momentum the Tigers needed to seal the deal.
Clemson learns of its College Football Playoff destination Sunday at noon.