CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- No. 2 Clemson jumped out to an early lead and never relented, running right at and over Pitt in a 42-10 win in the 2018 ACC Championship Game. The victory marked a crowning achievement for the Tigers, claiming a fourth-straight conference title and almost-certainly clinching a fourth-straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.
ACC Offensive Player of the Year Travis Etienne had a home-run hitter performance, breaking loose for a 75-yard run on the first offensive play of the game, adding another rush for 45 yards in the second quarter and finishing with 156 rushing yards on just 12 attempts (13.0 yards per carry) with two touchdowns.
"Going into the first play, kind of like a little outside zone we've been running all week. I knew it would be the first play of the game," Etienne explained after the game. "Getting the handoff, seeing where the backer fit, it was just well blocked. There was just a big hole. I got around that to the outside. Amari [Rodgers] had this guy standing still. I mean, after that I was gone. Amari, great block downfield. Wouldn't have made it without him. I just thank him for that."
The Tigers defense was tenacious, with Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell all having great games in the trenches. Pitt's ground game got going eventually but the edge was established early, as the Panthers sat with -27 total yards of offense and a turnover after its first three drives.
Of course you knew Christian Wilkins was going to find a way to have an impact in this game. And while he didn't get a look at a touchdown on offense from Clemson's "Fridge" package, he nearly scored on a fumble return that did end up in a score. The defensive success made life easy on Clemson's offense, which had two one-play touchdown drives of 10 yards or less.
Dabo Swinney has made Clemson the class of the ACC here in the playoff era, stocking the roster with elite talent and not only shows up ready to play but also sticks around. Christian Wilkins, Hunter Renfrow and the rest of this senior class have played in national championship games, won a national championship and continue to extend the ACC record for winningest senior class in history with 53 wins.
All that familiarity and all of that success has also brought some fatigue, setting up Swinney to spend this week reacting to the sentiment from Clemson fans that a 56-35 win against South Carolina in the regular season finale "felt like a loss." It was a reminder that while Clemson has dominated the ACC in the playoff era this program is still relatively new to the elite tier of college football.
For years leading up to Clemson's 2016 national championship, Swinney demanded to be treated like one of the elites. He campaigned against the term "Clemsoning" and reminded anyone who would listen that his team was winning games at a clip comparable to Alabama and Ohio State. This week the coach who has "reached the mountaintop" as both a player and a coach felt the need to remind people on more than one occasion how fortunate they are to be a part of history.
"What was accomplished this year, I mean, these guys won 11 games by 20 points or more. We set the school record for touchdowns, offensive touchdowns," Swinney said. "That offense we had in 2016 was pretty good. These guys shattered it tonight. We still got more games, hopefully two more games."
When you combine raw talent with production and performance, the argument becomes clear: this is the best Clemson team ever. The program has won 56 of its last 60 games, carrying over much of its core from year to year. But no other Clemson team in program history has been more prepared for a run at a national championship, and with another ACC Championship in the bag the 2018 Tigers are ready to finish the job and, as Swinney likes to say, "win the closer."
"It's special. It's what this year's been all year. It's been a historic year," Swinney said after the game. "This is just another one of those things tonight. it's something those guys really take a lot of pride in. You can't be the best ever if you don't do things no one's ever done."
And all of this happening on the 10-year anniversary of then-interim coach Swinney being officially promoted to full-time head coach of the Clemson Tigers. A self-proclaimed "big dreamer," Swinney says there's still more to come.
"I had a vision for building a program that could be special, that could be hopefully a model in college football. I think we're still under construction, still got a lot of work to do. I continue every day and every year to continue to dream, to believe in a very positive future.
"That's just the way I go about things. I've never sat around and said, Well, hopefully we can win nine games, this and that. If we're going to dream, let's extravagantly dream. Let's go all out with it. Let's get a bunch of good people together, be able to sell that and articulate that, get young people to buy into it."
Three things to know about Clemson's win:
1. Clemson should have locked up a top-two spot
The Tigers now have nine victories against teams with seven or more wins, the most in the country. They went on the road and beat a Texas A&M team that finished as the runner-up in the SEC West and beat all but two opponents by more than 14 points. The selection committee does not claim to reward margin of victory but Clemson put plenty of eye candy on the ledger to solidify its spot at No. 2, likely heading to the Orange Bowl for its national semifinal on Dec. 29.
Among the many questions for the selection committee is what then to do with Notre Dame, but if the Irish also hold their spot at No. 3 then the two undefeated teams will be set for only their fourth meeting ever and first since Clemson beat Notre Dame 24-22 in Death Valley in 2015.
2. This was not a great Trevor Lawrence game
Last year the ACC Championship Game provided a stage for one of the best performances of Kelly Bryant's brief career as Clemson's starting quarterback. Given the Tigers' status as heavy favorites and the tough challenges likely ahead in the playoff, there appeared to be an opportunity for a game plan that would let Lawrence loose in the downfield passing game.
There were highlights, no doubt, and plenty of well-thrown balls that drew oohs and aahs from the poncho-clad fans braving the wet conditions, but the the final tally was 12-for-24 for 118 yards and two red zone touchdown passes to Tee Higgins.
It's worth considering that the conditions also played a role in Lawrence's passing, contributing to some of the balls that floated a little or lacked the usual zip. Pitt also deserves credit for putting in a defensive gameplan that would put its players in position to contend with Clemson's athletic receivers and limit the explosive plays down the field. Lawrence didn't need to throw the ball at a championship level in order to win on Saturday night, but against Notre Dame, or Alabama, Clemson might need that elite talent and championship potential to show up more on the field.
3. A sigh of relief after a season with weighty expectations
It's been an emotional season for Clemson, and it wouldn't be crazy to think the drain of a dramatic quarterback change from senior Kelly Bryant to Lawrence, Bryant's decision to leave the program and the grind of yet another ACC Championship campaign has worn on the entire team.
Saturday night felt like one big, deep exasperated sigh of relief. For months Clemson has been far and away the best team in the league and one of the most impressive teams in the country. Some even postured that the Tigers could get into the College Football Playoff even with a loss to Pitt. Everything was in position, all Clemson had to do was go out and take care of business. That's easy for us to say on the outside but moving through your everyday life with those expectations can be exhausting for the players and coaches tasked with maintaining perfection.
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