Duke football travels to Pittsburgh this weekend, its second attempt at the reaching six wins and bowl eligibility.
Duke has a lot to work on after last week’s dispiriting 28-14 loss to Virginia and they are working on them in a most inhospitable environment. The teams have met five times since Pitt joined the ACC and Pitt has won four of those. Duke’s only win was 51-48, in double overtime, back in 2014.
If a football team can have an identity, Pitt’s identity is physicality. David Cutcliffe used the word “physical” four times in his first two sentences discussing Duke’s next opponent in Tuesday’s meeting luncheon.
How does a team become so associated with that important aspect of the game?
“If you want to see physical football, go to western PA.,” Cutcliffe says. “Think about the Steelers. Physical football. It’s a mentality. And Pat Narduzzi is a defensive coach, a former defensive coordinator at a very physical Michigan State team and he brought that personality to the Pitt Panthers. You have a little bit of it in recruiting and a little bit of it in Coach Narduzzi and it’s just the mentality of the program.”
It’s more than just smash-mouth, of course. Pitt has sent skill position players like quarterback Nate Peterman and wide receiver Tyler Boyd to the NFL and they have shown a knack for creatively getting the ball in the hands of their playmakers, end-arounds, reverses, jet sweeps, you name it and it’s in their playbook.
Duke needs to up its game in every aspect to come back with a win. Cutcliffe used the word “repair” to describe the emphasis this week.
Part of that repair is back to basics. Duke’s poor special-teams play was a big part of the Virginia loss. Cutcliffe indicated Duke was working on improving the stances of its punt-coverage unit, focusing on quicker acceleration and getting off blocks.
“We’ve got to get our hands in better position and out of our stance, whether you’re blocking or trying to release. I can use my hands to get off the line of scrimmage. If you’re releasing well enough and you’re not getting ridden all the way down the field, you can use your full speed and force fair catches.”
It’s not just special teams.
“Whether it’s stance, alignment or technique, that flavor is the same notes I was making offensively and defensively. The effort in everything you do, the effort of it, has to be exceptional. And we didn’t finish well. We didn’t tackle well on punt coverage but we didn’t tackle well on defense. We need to hold our blocks longer to run the football. It’s not rocket science. It’s diligence, it’s consistency, and it’s an every-minute thing, not an everyday thing.”
That may seem like minutiae. But slippage in the little things that leads to losing streaks.
You may recall last year’s Duke-Pitt game, when Pitt overcame a 17-7 deficit by scoring the game’s last 17 points.
But Pitt also kept Duke out of the end zone for the first 37 minutes, reminiscent of last Saturday’s slow offensive start against Virginia.
Daniel Jones has some thoughts.
“A lot of it goes back to creating explosive plays. We haven’t done that great. That will be a focus of ours, while understanding that it’s going to be a physical game. Their physicality may have had something to do with it [slow start last year] but I think it’s more us. We have to be able to come out and make plays. After last week, we cannot let it happen again. We have to come out and start fast.”
Defensive end Victor Dimukeje says the defense needs the same urgency.
“They [the coaches] just want us doing our jobs and not worrying about anyone else. Gang-tackling, swarming to the ball. We have to come out and be physical from the start and not try to ease in to the game.”
About those explosives. Duke has been without Brittain Brown and Aaron Young, two of the team’s playmakers and there’s no guarantee either will play this week.
Cutcliffe and Jones insist that Duke still has enough talent on the field. Cutcliffe makes the point that better downfield blocking can turn short plays into long plays. He wants his guys in attack mode, hunting for defenders to block.
Plenty of things to repair and not a lot of time to repair them. We’ll know more in four days.
Cutcliffe said linebacker Ben Humphreys is day-to-day. “We’re seeing where this is heading.”
With Koby Quansah out for the season, redshirt sophomore Xander Gagnon is next man up, perhaps Brandon Hill.
Speaking of injuries, Christian Harris will regain the starting left tackle spot after the season-ending injury to Jaylen Miller.
Cutcliffe describes the 6-6, 310-pound redshirt senior as strong and athletic.
So, why did the lose his starting spot?
Technique issues, to start. He tends to start too high, making it easy for rushers to get him off balance. Duke has been working a lot with him to get him off this bad habit.
Cutcliffe says Harris also lacks the “confidence to use his athleticism.”
Redshirt freshman Patrick Leitten is listed as backup at left tackle. Leitten is healthy after surgery following a knee injury this spring. But he’s never taken a college snap.
Duke is starting to funnel more true freshmen into the lineup. Linebackers Rocky Shelton and Shaka Heyward made their first appearances last week and there may be more. Duke hopes to “limit exposures” for the starters, especially on special teams.
Deon Jackson has taken every running back snap the last two weeks and he’s getting run down.
“We’re watching his legs,” Cutcliffe says.
So, why haven’t we seen Mataeo Durant and/or Nico Pierre?
“Their job is to make us believe that they’re a better option than a tired Deon,” Cutcliffe says. “That’s the reality of competitive situations in sports. They’re physically capable. But they have to have the complete package.”
Translation. They need to block, know the plays, run routes.