Neil Blackmon’s weekly musings, trends and takeaways from the weekend that was in the ACC…

Sometimes we think we know things about football and other times we just don’t know what we don’t know.

Take Pitt.

Another week, another instant classic for Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers.

Pitt came out on the wrong side of Saturday’s classic, though, falling 34-27 in overtime to a Tennessee team returning the guts of the team the Panthers bested in Knoxville last autumn.

What to make of Pitt’s not for the faint of heart 1-1 start?

And how did a team that returned all 5 starters and 145 career starts on the offensive line manage to struggle so badly to block Saturday afternoon?

In Saturday’s overtime thriller, Pitt and Tennessee finished with nearly identical yardage (416-415 Tennessee) and first downs (21-20, Pitt). Both teams committed 2 turnovers. Both teams received flashes of brilliance from transfer quarterbacks.

But in the end, Tennessee made one or two more big plays.

The biggest may have come in the second quarter, with Pitt leading 10-0 and threatening to run away from the Vols early. That’s when Kedon Slovis, who was off to a terrific start, made a big mistake, throwing this doomed-to-fail pass into coverage that was intercepted by Trevon Flowers in the end zone.

Slovis left the game injured — reportedly he suffered a concussion — and while redshirt senior Nick Patti battled, the Panthers’ offense never recaptured the rhythm it had in the opening half behind Slovis.

Perhaps it was fitting that the game ended on a Trevon Flowers sack in overtime. After all, if there’s one overarching takeaway from Pittsburgh’s first 2 games, it’s that Pat Narduzzi’s offensive line is a work in progress, and how much progress the Panthers make up front will define the type of season the defending ACC champions have.

Tennessee pressured Slovis and Patti all night, recording 26 quarterback pressures (7 more than any game Pitt played last season) and 4 sacks (tied for the most Pitt allowed in a game in 2021).

The constant pressure bled over into red-zone efficiency issues. Pitt scored just 1 touchdown in 4 red-zone trips in regulation. The Panthers also missed 2 field goals in the third quarter, when Patti was moving the team despite loads of Tennessee pressure.

If Pitt gets things sorted out up front, it is hard not to be bullish on the Panthers chances to get back to Charlotte.

After a tough opener against West Virginia, Narduzzi’s defense found something in the second half. They stuffed the Tennessee offense over the course of the third and fourth quarter, holding the Vols to just 3 points and 115 yards in that span. The Panthers also forced a fumble to help set up the game-tying score.

Especially promising? Pitt’s run defense, which limited the Vols to 2.6 yards per carry on 35 team rushes and contained Tennessee’s dual-threat quarterback Hendon Hooker by sacking him 3 times and tackling him for a loss on another designed run. Hooker finished with just 27 yards on 15 attempts.

Pitt will definitely think this one got away, and the loss of Slovis further complicates how we evaluate this Panthers team moving forward. It would appear, however, that the riddle Pitt must solve before ACC play begins is up front. That’s a curiosity no one expected when the season began, and given the roster has 9 blue chips on the offensive line and returned 5 starters, things should be better than they have been over the first 2 games.

If Slovis is out for an extended period of time, protecting Patti, who has a sordid injury history of his own, becomes paramount. There’s no margin for error. There’s also- fortunately for Pitt- two weeks to sort it all out- with Western Michigan and Rhode Island on tap before conference play opens for the Panthers in October.

Preaching Like Dabo

Because no one preaches about pigskin better than Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, this section will revisit one topic a week in the ACC that should be the subject of a Dabo sermon.

Last week we visited NIL, and the ways it is making the sport fairer and more equitable for athletes, while doing very little to nothing to denigrate the product on or off the field. This week, we discuss what I view as merely a byproduct of the NIL era: College Football Playoff expansion, due to arrive no later than 2026.

Expansion is a wonderful thing: A sport that more than once has awarded the national title to a program that lost a bowl game is now holding a 12-team, open tournament. That’s huge, and in the NIL era, the fact that 12 teams, as opposed to 4, will have a chance to make the College Football Playoff is an enormous victory for parity. Players want to play on the biggest stages. With the Playoff expanded to 12, recruits who might have gone to a top-20 program instead of a top-5 program but for the reality they wanted a chance to win a championship may opt to take the chance on the top-20 program. Giving teams across the country a path to the Playoff is great for the sport.

That said, an expanded College Football Playoff — which will also include 1st-round games on college campuses, an experience sure to be unrivaled in the history of the sport — does not mean we’ll get better football games.

More games? Yes. Better games? No.

At least that’s what the brief history of the College Football Playoff tells us. Remember, the current format is 4 teams. There’s likely less distance between a 1 seed and 4 seed than a 5 and a 12 or a 6 and 11. We’re not likely to see road teams win much in the first round and 8 seeds likely aren’t going to beat 1s in the quarters, either.

We know this because results tell us this.

Since the College Football Playoff began in 2014, lower seeds have won 6 of the 16 College Football Playoff semifinals. That’s not a bad number, and it includes two 4-seed victories. What it does not include is many wins by either underdogs (just 3 underdogs have prevailed in semifinals, ever) or close football games. In fact, in the 8 years of the College Football Playoff, only 3 of the 16 semifinal games have been decided by one touchdown or less: Ohio State’s win over Alabama in the 2014 semifinals; Clemson’s win over Ohio State in the 2019 semifinals; and Georgia’s 54-48 double overtime Rose Bowl win in the greatest College Football Semifinal ever played in 2017.

More teams won’t mean more close games. But more teams being involved? That’s great for the sport regardless of the competitiveness of individual first round and quarterfinal contests.

The Road to Charlotte

A look around the league in Week 2:

Louisville 20, UCF 14: Gus Malzahn losing a game he has no business losing? Color me shocked … said no one ever. Make no mistake: This loss this was terrible for UCF, and that’s fair. The Knights were hosting a less talented opponent at a sold-out Bounce House and on a night when ESPN cameras kept panning past the 2017 National Champions banner, the game was a chance for UCF to put their money where their mouth was all offseason and prove that they are, with Florida and Miami under new staffs and FSU still rebuilding, the best program in the sport’s most talent-rich state.

This was also a great and yes, a necessary win for Scott Satterfield and Louisville. Last week’s dismal performance at Syracuse dropped Satterfield to 18-20 as Louisville’s head coach, and an 0-2 start after 2 consecutive losing seasons may have marked the beginning of the end of Satterfield’s tenure.

Instead, the Cardinals’ defense, sliced and diced by a similar Syracuse spread a week ago, surrendered plenty of yards but stepped up when it mattered most, forcing 10 consecutive stops from the second quarter forward and limiting Gus Malzahn’s offense to 4-of-16 on third down. Meanwhile, Malik Cunningham was, well, Malik Cunningham again after a miserable start to the season at Syracuse.

Cunningham accounted for 322 yards of offense, including the above 43-yard touchdown run that gave Louisville the lead for good. The Cardinals found something on defense Friday night. Their quarterback found himself, too. They’ll get another Friday night spotlight game next week when Florida State visits Cardinal Stadium. Suddenly, they’ll play that game against a solid Seminoles’ team with momentum. What a difference a week makes.

Virginia Tech 27, Boston College 10: That’s more like it, Brent Pry!

A work of fine art it was not, but Virginia Tech’s 27-10 ACC opener victory over Boston College was classic Hokies lunch pail, blue-collar football.

Virginia Tech bullied the Eagles up front, limiting Boston College to just 4 yards rushing. Left without a run game for the second consecutive week, talented BC quarterback Phil Jurkovec was ineffective, throwing for 135 yards at a dismal 4.1 yard per attempt clip.

The Hokies weren’t very good offensively, but they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot all night like they did at Old Dominion. Grant Wells averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt — also a bad number — but he didn’t throw the ball to the Eagles, which corrected the problem that costs the Hokies the game in Norfolk.

And while 65 of Virginia Tech’s 145 yards rushing came on one attempt, at least the Hokies found an explosive play here and there. Do that, limit turnovers, play sound special teams, and well — it starts to sound like Beamer ball.

Nothing wrong with replicating that in Blacksburg.

Duke 31, Northwestern 23: We don’t cast ballots for ACC Coach of the Year in September, but as with anything, first impressions matter. Mike Elko is making a masterful one at Duke. The Blue Devils are 2-0 after Saturday’s upset win at Northwestern, a game Duke never trailed.

Duke stormed to a 21-0 lead behind Jordan Waters and a power run game before Pat Fitzgerald’s team woke up and roared back, but when Duke needed first downs late in the game, they managed to drive the football 33 yards to kick a field goal and go up 8. Then, when they needed to make a play as Northwestern threatened to tie, they came up with a Brandon Johnson fumble recovery at the goal line to seal the victory.

Elko, a longtime respected defensive coordinator at multiple prior stops, has really elevated Duke defensively. The Blue Devils did give up 511 yards to the Northwestern offense. But they also produced 3 turnovers, 12 pass break-ups, 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. In the end, that was enough.

Miami 30, Southern Miss 7: For all the chatter about energy around the Miami program, you couldn’t tell on a muggy, hot September Saturday at Hard Rock Stadium.

The Hurricanes looked sluggish most the afternoon and Canes fans throughout the state — but especially locally in South Florida — couldn’t be bothered to fill the stands to much beyond half-capacity for Mario Cristobal’s first home game against an FBS opponent.

The Canes got the job done, though, shaking off their slumber in the second half to score the game’s final 27 points and defeat Southern Miss 30-7.

Cristobal’s defense was particularly impressive. They limited the Golden Eagles to just 12 first downs and produced 3 turnovers. Georgia transfer Tyrique Stevenson was a monster, collecting an interception, a tackle for loss and positioning Miami for another score with a tremendous punt return.

On an afternoon where Tyler Van Dyke was merely “adequate,” the Canes punished Southern Miss on the ground, leaning on the tandem of Henry Parrish Jr. and Thad Franklin for 158 yards on 35 carries between them, including this bruising touchdown run from Franklin.

Miami averaged only 3.5 yards per carry on the afternoon, but those numbers are a bit deceptive considering the Parrish/Franklin tandem managed 4.8 together on their carries.

A balanced Miami attack will be the best Miami attack, but what is evident after 2 weeks is the Hurricanes’ defense is fast and physical and if Miami’s offense can score in the 20s consistently, they’ll have a great chance to win every Saturday.

North Carolina 35, Georgia State 28: The Tar Heels won but proved, for another frightening 60 minutes, how silly it was to schedule a second straight road game against a quality Sun Belt program to open their regular season.

Carolina trailed 28-21 late in the third quarter, its defense against kept on its heels by a Sun Belt offense. Fortunately for UNC, Mack Brown appears to have found a star in freshman Omarion Hampton, who ran for 110 yards, including this thunderous run to paydirt to tie the game just before the end of the third quarter.

Gene Chizik’s defense also woke up late, forcing 4 punts to seal the victory.

Drake Maye continues to impress, hitting 19-of-24 passes for 284 and 2 touchdowns. North Carolina now has a bye to sort that defense out — and they’ll face an anemic, desperate Notre Dame in their home opener in Chapel Hill on Sept. 24.

A bonus? The Tar Heels’ opening day scare in Boone against feisty Appalachian State suddenly doesn’t look so terrifying. It doesn’t mean it was smart to schedule the game, but a road win against an Appalachian State team that won at Kyle Field? That’s … impressive?

No. 18 NC State 55, Charleston Southern 3: Devin Leary was mad, y’all.

We’re talking 6 touchdowns (4 passing, 2 rushing) in one half, mad.

We’re talking “I can’t believe I completed only 50 percent of my passes, and our offense didn’t do anything for an entire half at East Carolina when I’m the ACC Preseason Player of the Year,” mad.

Leary’s mastery of Charleston Southern was to be expected, of course, and things get interesting next Saturday night when Texas Tech comes to Raleigh fresh off an upset of No. 25 Houston.

Getting Leary right and working on the run game to the tune of 200 plus yards was just what the doctor ordered for Dave Doeren’s team. NC State is clearly elite on defense. A week after saving the team’s bacon against East Carolina, Charleston Southern managed just 9 first downs. What will define this team, as we were reminded Saturday, is the type of season they get from their star quarterback.

No. 5 Clemson 35, Furman 12: The real news on the banks of Lake Hartwell this week came when Dabo Swinney signed a huge contract extension, joining college football’s 10-million-dollar club. Ink hit paper on the new deal just 2 years after Swinney promised to quit coaching college ball if NIL took effect and players were compensated. Amazing how a little bit of payday green changed his tune, isn’t it?

What hasn’t changed much is that Clemson’s offense is a struggle to watch. Clemson absolutely called off the dogs in the third quarter and the Tigers led 35-9 when Swinney pulled the starters. That doesn’t mean the reserves should fail to score against an FCS opponent, or that Clemson should ever finish a game against Furman with under 400 yards of total offense.

DJ Uiagalelei was good Saturday: 21-27 for 231 yards and 2 touchdowns, building off an impressive second half at Georgia Tech on Monday night. Cade Klubnik was not good, going 1-4 for negative 2 yards and looking lost, for the most part.

Does that mean it’s clearly Uiagalelei’s Clemson team to lead, come what may? It certainly looks and feels that way. What that means we won’t know until the Tigers play someone with a pulse, and that won’t happen until Clemson visits Wake Forest on September 24.

No. 23 Wake Forest 45, Vanderbilt 25: Sam Hartman is back!

What a relief that must have been for Dave Clawson this week as he prepared his Demon Deacons team for a tricky trip to a 2-0 Vanderbilt team looking for a signature win under Clark Lea.

Behind 300 yards passing for Hartman and an opportunistic defense, Wake Forest jumped all over Vandy, leading 21-10 at halftime and never looking back in a 20-point victory. The key play? A first-quarter pick-6 from Coby Davis that helped Wake erase an early 3-0 deficit while Hartman (18-of-27, 300 yards, 4 touchdowns) loosened the early-season cobwebs.

The Demon Deacons should be unbeaten when Clemson comes calling in two weeks.

Georgia Tech 35, Western Carolina 17: Soak it in, Ramblin’ Wreck fans!

The sweet taste of victory found its way to Bobby Dodd Stadium Saturday, despite a testy start that saw the Yellow Jackets and Catamounts tied at 14 after a quarter.

Who knows when Georgia Tech will win again?

Dontae Smith rushed for 3 touchdowns, offsetting a woeful performance by Jeff Sims, to allow Georgia Tech to seize control of the football game in the second quarter and escape with an 18-point win. Smith and the Tech run game, which generated 241 yards, were and are the good news.

The bad news?

Games against Ole Miss and UCF await before Georgia Tech returns to league play on Oct. 1 against Pitt. Could Georgia Tech win at least 2 of those games? Sure, if the Jeff Sims we saw for a half against Clemson shows up and Geoff Collins schemes up ways to stop Lane Kiffin and Gus Malzahn’s offenses? But with an anemic passing game and a football team that can’t really play from behind, losing all of them seems much more likely.

Georgia Tech may end the year better than its record. But the schedule makes savoring victories like the hard-earned W the Jackets claimed Saturday all the more important.

Illinois 24, Virginia 3: Tony Elliott’s program looked like an offensive force in week 1, so in keeping with the “we just don’t know what we don’t know” theme this week, they couldn’t do anything against the Fighting Ilini defense Saturday in Champaign.

Brennan Armstrong, who was so steady a season ago that Virginia sent out Heisman campaign information to media throughout the summer, was dire on Saturday, completing just 13-of-32 passes and tossing 2 interceptions. Armstrong was also contained on the ground, rushing for -9 yards on 11 attempts.

Considering Virginia gained only 222 yards in the football game and failed to convert a single third down (0-for-16!), things could have been worse for the Hoos. Fortunately, and perhaps this is the bright spot takeaway for Virginia on Saturday, John Rudzinski’s defense bent but didn’t break and produced 4 turnovers to keep the game respectable.

Old Dominion, who has already beaten Virginia Tech, visits Charlottesville on Saturday. A win would do plenty for the Hoos confidence — and provide in-state bragging rights until Nov. 26 in the process.

Syracuse 48, UConn 14: It’s only 2 games, but should we ask whether Syracuse is good?

The Orange have been particularly impressive offensively, which bodes well for a program that has always played solid defense under Dino Babers. It’s only two games, but Robert Anae and his offensive staff have revitalized the offense and coaxed outstanding production out of Garrett Shrader, who has now thrown for 523 yards and 5 touchdowns in Syracuse’s first 2 games while adding 118 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground.

If Shrader keeps connecting on passes like this one to Damien Alford, Syracuse is going to be tough to defend because All-American running back Sean Tucker is going to get his every Saturday.

Purdue visits the Carrier Dome (Mama called it the Carrier Dome, I’m calling it the Carrier Dome), but if the Orange win that game, a 5-0 start before a huge Oct. 15 tilt against NC State isn’t just possible — it is likely.

Bowden Awards

Every week, The Road pays homage to the ACC’s best ever- Bobby Bowden- by honoring the ACC’s best over the weekend

Charlie Ward Award (Best Offensive Player of the Week): Garrett Shrader Jr., QB, Syracuse

Shrader captures this award for the second consecutive week after completing 20-of-23 passes for 287 yards in Syracuse’s rout of UConn. Shrader accounted for 5 touchdowns (3 passing, 2 rushing) on his way to grading out in the top 5 nationally among quarterbacks for the second straight week, per Pro Football Focus.

The ACC is full of good quarterbacks and as a result, little attention was paid to Shrader in the offseason, with most questions revolving around whether he’d hold off Michigan transfer Dan Villari and Florida transfer Carolos Del Rio-Wilson for the starting job.

Not only has Shrader cemented his role as QB 1; he’s also been the best player in the ACC over the season’s first 2 games.

Mickey Andrews Award (Defensive Player of the Week): Brandon Johnson, DB, Duke

Johnson made the two biggest plays Saturday in Evanston after Northwestern had rallied to make what was a 21-0 game to 28-23 in the fourth quarter. The first was this late-break interception, which was just a magnificent play by a defensive back locked in on film study and reading the quarterback’s eyes.

Johnson’s other big moment came when he fell on an Evan Hull fumble in the end zone to close the game out for Duke. In between, the Duke defensive back broke up 2 passes and allowed 0 completions on 5 Northwestern targets.

Combining statistics and impact on the game, it’s hard to have a better football game.

Sebastian Janikowski Award (Best Special Teams Player): PJ O’Brien, Pitt

The Pitt corner blocked a punt to help Pitt reclaim momentum in the second half against Tennessee and also handled returns for the Panthers, posting a 30-yard punt return as well.

While Pitt didn’t capitalize off the blocked punt, O’Brien, a product of South Florida football factory Deerfield Beach, gives the Panthers electric speed off the edge in punt blocks and a capable return man in the absence of the departed Jordan Addison.

I Can’t Wait Until Next Saturday Because:  Miami at Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher and a wounded, angry A&M squad host the Canes at Kyle Field. Were the Aggies looking ahead in their defeat to Appalachian State Saturday? If you watched the game, that’s not a compelling argument. Appalachian State simply whipped Texas A&M at the point of attack — they were the better prepared, more physical football team and won the game as a result.

What is Miami in year one of the Cristobal era?

At a minimum, the Hurricanes are fast and physical.

At their best, perhaps it was the Canes, and not the SEC’s Aggies, who are the real College Football Playoff contenders.

If Tyler Van Dyke is hot and the Miami run game is as effective as it was in the second half against Southern Miss, Jimbo and Texas A&M could be in for a long afternoon.

If Miami loses, it’s a missed opportunity for the Canes to make a national statement that Cristobal is rustling the sleeping giant in Coral Gables (or is it Miami Gardens?) from its two-decade slumber.

Either way, it’s going to be must-see television.