No. 2 Clemson's defense hopes to dominate Pitt

With all the attention given to Clemson's offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, it may be easy to overlook the contributions of the Tigers' defense.

But the play on that side of the ball could be a key factor as the second-ranked Tigers (9-0, 6-0 ACC) go into the season's stretch run that starts with a visit from unranked Pittsburgh (5-4, 2-3) Saturday. Kickoff at Memorial Stadium in Clemson is at 3:30 p.m. ET with the telecast split between ABC and ESPN2.

Clemson posted 565 yards in a 54-0 demolition of Syracuse last week, but the real story may have been the defense's second shutout of the season and the fifth since Brent Venables was named defensive coordinator in 2012.

The Tigers held high-scoring Syracuse to 277 yards — 208 below its season average — and intercepted three passes, returning one 64 yards for a touchdown.

“It was a fun tape to study and grade,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It's pretty special when you can play a clean game like that and dominate like that. Shutouts are hard to come by, so I'm really proud of those guys.”

It's a remarkable surge for a unit that lost the bulk of its 2015 talent to the NFL and loomed as the team's biggest question mark in the preseason. But Venables has plugged the holes and molded a defense that ranks 12th nationally and appears to be getting better every week.

Linebacker Ben Boulware is its heart and soul. An emotional leader, he plays hard from snap to whistle and is tied for the team lead in tackles with 74 stops despite missing one game with injury. He had seven tackles last week against Syracuse.

The easy victory over the Orange was a welcome change of pace for Clemson, which had won five of its first eight games by a touchdown or less.

“It was nice — these last few games we've been holding onto our hats in the fourth quarter,” Swinney said.

The visiting Panthers also have experienced their share of close games, but generally have come out on the losing end. Before last week's 51-28 thumping by Miami, they had lost by seven points to Oklahoma State, by one to North Carolina, and by three to Virginia Tech. They do have three-point wins over Penn State and Georgia Tech.

They had considerable success running the football early on, but struggled on the ground at Miami, finishing with just 130 yards. They went into the game averaging 232 yards rushing. Running back James Conner, their leading rusher for the season, ended up with just 40 yards on 12 runs.

Quarterback Nathan Peterman passed for 287 yards, but he completed only 17 of his 35 pass attempts and had a critical interception in the end zone in the third quarter with the Panthers trailing by just 13 points. The Panthers also lost a critical fumble deep in their own territory that led to a Miami touchdown.

The Panthers had problems on the other side of the ball as well, getting to Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya for only one sack, that in the fourth quarter. They came into the game with 28 sacks on the year.

Now the Panthers face Clemson's Watson, who finished third in Heisman balloting a year ago.

“He's special, obviously,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I don't know if he's still up for the Heisman or how politics go there, but he's a great football player. They are undefeated. He leads their offense.

“Deshaun is not only an excellent thrower, but he's got a strong arm and throws darts. But he's got the run threat, too. Kaaya really didn't, even though he scrambled on some third-down passes to gain yards last week.

“This guy is a threat on every down to beat you with his arm and beat with you his feet. That's going to change some things for you on defense.”

The Panthers need one more victory to reach bowl eligibility for a ninth consecutive season. The Tigers are looking to clinch the Atlantic Division's berth in the ACC title game.

“As we get into November,” Swinney said, “we're certainly headed in the right direction.”