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Pitt is different team than when Panthers tamed Clemson in Death Valley

Jerry DiPaola
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USA Today Sports
Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel attempts to bring down Pitt running back James Conner during the second half Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Clemson, S.C.
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Pitt's Nathan Peterman with the ball against Clemson on Nov. 12, 2016, in Clemson, S.C.

At least James Conner apologized, though it wasn’t necessary.

It was only two seasons ago on Nov. 12, 2016, when Pitt defeated Clemson, 43-42, in Death Valley in one of college football’s bigger upsets in recent seasons. The rematch — and an opportunity for Pitt to make history in a more shocking and significant manner — will be Saturday night in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Back then, Conner thought his 189 total yards and two touchdowns — one running, one receiving — might help shake up the College Football Playoff. Clemson was undefeated (9-0), ranked No. 2 and looked to be biding its time before getting an invitation to the semifinals. The week before, Clemson beat Syracuse, 54-0.

“Sorry to do that,” Conner said after the game. “But we wanted this one bad.”

As it turned out, Clemson was one of three playoff contenders to lose that day — No. 3 Michigan to Iowa and No. 4 Washington to USC — and the Tigers dropped only to No. 4. Later on, they beat Virginia Tech in the conference title game, climbed back to No. 2 and went on to win the national championship.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney admitted luck was on his side.

“We were kind of lucky that we still had an opportunity,” said Swinney, who was named 2018 ACC coach of the year Tuesday. “We literally played our best football from that point on.”

Yet, his players haven’t forgotten. Beyond the embarrassment of losing to an unranked team, it was the only home loss Clemson’s current seniors have endured, even those who have been around since 2014.

“Coming down the stretch here, we were seeing how their division was shaking up,” said wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the decisive touchdown pass in the title game victory against Alabama. “We were seeing that Pitt might win it. We seniors, especially, were looking forward to kind of getting a rematch against them.”

All-ACC defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, also a senior, gave an honest assessment of what happened that day.

“I just remember they just out-executed us,” he said. “They had a good plan for us, a good scheme for us, and they executed it well. They were just fearless coming into Death Valley.”

The game also might serve as a warning for this year’s Clemson team that is 12-0 and likewise ranked No. 2.

“I feel like then, at that time, 2016, playing against them was a bit of a wake-up call,” Wilkins said. “I feel maybe at that point in the season, things might have been a little relaxed. We might have taken our foot off the throttle a little bit.”

If Pitt fans are banking on history repeating, they should know there are important differences between their team then and the team now.

• For starters, Pitt is a bigger underdog (25 points to 21 ½).

• Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman, who threw for five touchdowns that day, are gone. “Man, their quarterback had a heck of a game,” Swinney said. “I just remember it was a million yards in the game (actually, only 464). We couldn’t really stop them.”

• Pitt is missing a tight end threat. This season, three Pitt tight ends have totaled 10 catches for 69 yards and no scores in 12 games. Scott Orndoff caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns in that game alone, including two worth 25 yards to set up Chris Blewitt’s winning 48-yard field goal.

• Believe it or not, Pitt’s running game might be better, though it stumbled the past two games. Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall have combined to rush for 2,069 yards. Conner and Quadree Henderson, a wide receiver, had 1,723.

• The Pitt defense is better this season. It allowed a school-record 4,331 passing yards in 2016 (333.2 per game). Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 580, also the most by any Pitt opponent. This season, opponents are getting only 225.6 (seventh-best in the ACC).

• Pitt is different in some basic ways, too. Both coordinators from 2016 have moved to other jobs, and Pitt has new offensive and defensive line coaches, plus new faces coaching the secondary.

Senior Dennis Briggs, who will play in his 51st Pitt game Saturday, said there is another difference that can be quantified.

“For me, I’m closer with the guys this year,” he said. “It’s more of a family atmosphere this year, not that it wasn’t back then. But naturally, as you go along in your program, you get closer to your guys, closer with your coaches.

“That emotional aspect is magnified as you get older. You’ve bought into the program, what everybody preaches. The emotional aspect for me personally is double what it was in 2016. That definitely translates into how I play on the field.”

Can this year’s team be as resilient as it was in 2016? Then, Pitt was coming off a 23-point loss at Miami. Pitt lost at Miami last Saturday, 24-3.

“I think we’ve come a long way since we played them a couple years ago,” Narduzzi said. “I think our depth is better. Are we a better football team? I don’t know. That’s still to be determined.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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