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Clemson finds itself as rare underdog against No. 23 Pittsburgh

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei talks with media in Clemson, S.C., October 18, 2021.Clemson Football Interviews Clemson Quarterback D J Uiagalelei
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei talks with media in Clemson, S.C., October 18, 2021.Clemson Football Interviews Clemson Quarterback D J Uiagalelei

When Clemson plays at Pittsburgh for the first time in program history on Saturday, it will do so as an underdog in an Atlantic Coast Conference game for the first time since the 2016 season.

While Pitt (5-1, 2-0 ACC) has risen to No. 23 in the polls, unranked Clemson (4-2, 3-1), in turn, already has lost two regular-season games for the first time since 2014.

Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi, however, isn’t buying the perception that the Tigers are a mere shell of their former self.

“They’re obviously a great football team,” Narduzzi said. “I know they’re not tops in the country right now, but they are talented.

“They’re one of the top scoring defenses in the country. They’re playing fantastic. (Defensive coordinator Brent) Venables has really got them going on defense.”

Narduzzi is correct on that count. The Tigers are allowing a mere 12.5 points per game, which ranks second nationally, and have allowed only two rushing touchdowns this season.

While Clemson’s defensive prowess isn’t in question, the Tigers’ offense has struggled mightily.

Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who stood out in his two starts a year ago, is completing just 55.7 percent of his passes and Clemson’s replacements at running back and wide receiver for Travis Etienne and Amari Rodgers, respectively, have been injury-plagued and have yet to establish themselves as consistent threats.

Uiagalelei has four touchdown passes and three interceptions this season. His efficiency rating of 106.9 ranks last in the ACC.

“The offense is missing Trevor Lawrence,” Narduzzi said. “But they’ve still got tons of players on the field who scare the heck out of you.”

Clemson’s offense stands in stark contrast to Pitt. The Panthers rank third nationally in scoring at 48.3 points per game, with quarterback Kenny Pickett the catalyst.

Pickett has emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, if not the nation. The fifth-year player ranks third nationally in passing efficiency and has 21 touchdown passes against one interception.

“He’s a rhythm thrower,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You can’t sit there and let this guy get comfortable. He’s just too good. You just don’t fool that guy.”

Clemson has enjoyed recent success against Pickett, holding him to two touchdowns while intercepting him five times in the Tigers’ most recent two games against the Panthers.

Pickett’s favorite target is Jordan Addison, who leads the ACC with nine touchdown receptions and ranks second in the league with 97.7 receiving yards per game.

“They’re throwing the ball all over the place,” Venables said. “And they’re averaging just under 80 plays per game. So they’re going to present quite a challenge.”

Pitt is the last team to deal Clemson a home loss at Memorial Stadium, topping the Tigers 43-42 midway through the 2016 season. The Tigers, however, went on to win the national championship that season.

The Tigers have since dominated both meetings against Pitt, winning 42-10 in the 2018 ACC Championship Game and 52-17 last season at Clemson.

“We’re playing them for the fourth time in seven seasons,” Narduzzi said. “It feels like they’re in our division.”

–Field Level Media