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Clemson's luck finally runs out in loss to Pitt

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Clemson can't afford to lose again (1:22)

Heather Dinich explains where Clemson stands in the College Football Playoff after a loss to Pittsburgh. (1:22)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- On his 64th pass of the day, his 381st of the season and his 1,009th since arriving at Clemson, Deshaun Watson might have thrown the worst ball of his career.

The goal-line interception -- Clemson's sixth red zone turnover of the season -- was returned 70 yards and set up a furious finish for Pittsburgh on a day that should've been a celebration of the best QB to don a Tigers' jersey. Instead, the interception erased a chance for the Tigers to salt away the game and opened the door for the Panthers, who became the first unranked team to beat Clemson since 2011 by booting a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left to secure a 43-42 victory.

It was Senior Day, an unofficial capper to Watson's career. Dabo Swinney announced earlier this week that he expected his star junior to depart for the NFL at season's end, and so the crowd was given a chance to cheer him as he ran down the famed hill in Death Valley, a QB who had led the Tigers to the mountaintop.

Climbing that mountain again this season has been difficult, and Watson has been at the center of the storm.

"I don't really care what people say," Watson said when asked about Saturday's three interceptions. "We're not perfect, not trying to be perfect. I'm going to make mistakes. Everything's not going to be a beauty pageant. I'll learn from it, watch the film and move on."

Watson, the heavy preseason Heisman favorite, has thrown his share of bad passes, and his 13 interceptions this season are tied for the second most by an FBS quarterback. He has also worked his share of magic, shouldering the weight of an offense that seems increasingly incapable of moving the ball without his handiwork. He threw 70 passes against Pitt's porous secondary, tallying a school-record 580 yards through the air.

Then there was Swinney, who elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Pitt's 35-yard line with 1:02 to play. Rather than punt deep or turn to Watson to win it, Swinney elected to give the ball to Wayne Gallman -- after he ran for no gain on third down. Six plays later, the Panthers celebrated the first win by an ACC opponent at Memorial Stadium since 2014.

That's how this Clemson run ended, with 70 passes from its superstar QB, one awful fourth-quarter interception and two futile runs.

"That's the coach's decision," Watson said. "There's a reason behind all that stuff, but we're not going to get into that. We had two chances, and Pittsburgh stood up and out-physicaled us. They made the plays and we didn't. That's it. You have to win your matchup."

There will be ample criticism levied in numerous directions, from Watson's picks to the offensive play calling to Swinney's unsuccessful fourth-down decision.

The officiating was lambasted by both sides, too, but a series of calls down the stretch caused an uproar from the fan base at Death Valley.

"Those are judgement calls," Swinney said of a personal foul on Ben Boulware that led to a touchdown for Pitt. "I don't wear the stripes."

So here's where things stand: Clemson, like its Coastal cohort Virginia Tech, fell as a heavy favorite on Saturday. Both had chances to lock up their divisions.

The Tigers will no doubt tumble in the playoff standings, too. That could put the ACC at risk of missing the playoff entirely, or perhaps it opens the door for Louisville. The Cardinals are technically still alive for the Atlantic, but they could sneak into the playoff after a close loss in Death Valley in October.

Or maybe Clemson rebounds. Maybe this was a wake-up call. Or maybe the failed Hail Mary by Auburn and the near miss from Troy and the botched kick by NC State were the signs of what was to come.

"We're still driving the car," center Jay Guillermo said. "We just have one hand on the wheel."

Indeed, this wasn't Watson's official sendoff. He can secure the ACC Atlantic next week at Wake Forest. He can finish 3-0 against arch rival South Carolina in the finale. But this did feel like the end of something -- of Clemson's perceived dominance, of a run of luck the Tigers have enjoyed in so many close games, of a sense of security for the ACC that, in fact, a playoff berth was secured.

"We haven't experienced a loss like that in a long time," Watson said. "This loss hurts, but I'm still going to keep my head high and walk with a smile on my face. This doesn't define me or this team. We'll move forward and be the best we can be."