Compared to the last two blow-out losses, Duke’s struggling football team showed encouraging signs of life Saturday against Pittsburgh.
But the same old bugaboos that have haunted Duke all season haunted them again. Call it Groundhog’s Day or Rinse and Repeat or whatever. But red-zone inefficiencies, a defense that couldn’t get off the field on third down or stop explosives, mental penalties and end-of-the-half clock mismanagement led to a 54-29 defeat.
The loss was Duke’s fifth straight and leaves the Blue Devils 3-6 overall, 0-5 in the ACC, the only ACC team without a conference win.
Duke got the ball first and marched down field with barely a blip, Mataeo Durant gaining ground inside and Gunnar Holmberg connecting on short passes.
But on second and goal from the Pitt one-yard line, a handoff from Holmberg to Durant misfired. Eighty-two yards—at least before the fumble— and no points.
“It was just a missed handoff between me and Gunnar,” Durant said. “We’ll get that fixed.”
Well, it was the ninth game of the season.
There was never any realistic chance that Duke was going to completely stop Pitt’s marvelous quarterback Kenny Pickett. Duke’s defense did get some shots, three sacks, two fumble recoveries, even a safety. But Duke was never going to win any other way than winning a shootout and leaving seven points on the field on the first possession was an early disaster.
But Duke did show some resilience. After Pitt predictably marched down the Wade turf for a touchdown, Duke responded with two more drives that produced zero touchdowns. Charlie Ham nailed a 46-yard field goal and it was 7-3. But Duke’s R.J. Oben sacked Pickett and forced a fumble that Ja’Mion Franklin recovered at the Pitt 23.
Three plays later and Duke was on the doorstep again, third and goal at the one.
Again, nothing. Holmberg was stuffed on a sneak and Durant received the same treatment.
David Cutcliffe said Pitt’s defensive linemen simply beat Duke’s offensive linemen.
“I thought they went underneath our interior. They were in the old 46, the Chicago Bear defensive look and we’ve got to dig them out, get low and give a guy a chance to launch. You’ve got to work at those.”
Pitt took over at their one. Shaka Heyward and Caleb Oppan tackled Vincent Davis in the end zone for a safety and it was 7-5.
Duke got the ball back and marched 70 yards in four plays, the last 32 Holmberg to Jalon Calhoun in the end zone.
Duke was up 12-7, Duke’s first lead since late in the Georgia Tech loss.
But Duke’s offense wouldn’t put it in the end zone again until the fourth quarter, by which time Pickett and his cohorts had achieved separation.
Duke did lead one more time. After falling behind 14-12 on a 47-yard scoring strike from Pickett to Jordan Addison, Jaylen Stinson took the ensuing kickoff 86 yards for a score.
“He kept kicking the ball short and I knew that if I caught the ball with a running start, that I would be able to have a shot,” Stinson said. “I just trusted my guys and everybody attacks to a man and I was able to run outside of one of my guys. Then I had to beat the kicker and there were two more guys I had to beat and I just knew it was a foot race to the end zone.”
That put Duke up 19-14.
But Pitt scored the final 16 points of the half, three Sam Scarton field goals and a touchdown.
“You’d like to take a lead and see where we go from there,” David Cutcliffe said. “After that, these guys are good on offense and we didn’t cover them close enough and we didn’t get enough pressure on the quarterback. That’s a continued battle to try and get stronger with our tackling. Offensively, I thought we had a great plan, a good start executing that. When we got into bad down-and-distance, we gave up hits and sacks that we’ve got to avoid. I think we left 14 points there. You don’t lose energy necessarily but you don’t gain momentum.”
The game got away from Duke in the final four minutes of the half. Duke had the ball down
24-19, with 3:55 left, at the Duke 27. Time to burn some clock and put some points on the board.
Durant picked up 15 yards on two rushes. Then Duke called three straight pass plays, resulting in two incompletion and a sack.
The Duke drive used a measly 1:14. Pitt responded with a field goal.
Duke got the ball back with 1:36 left. Holmberg went down and out with a sack. He left the game and was replaced by true freshman Riley Leonard.
Cutcliffe said Duke will know more tomorrow about the extent of Holmberg’s injury.
Duke inexplicably called a timeout with the game clock running and 1:04 left, saving a timeout for Pitt. They used that to kick a field goal on the final play of the half and took a 30-19 lead into the locker room.
Pitt got the ball first in the second half and took six plays to put it into the end zone,
Pickett hitting Gavin Bartholomew for 29 yards.
Pickett would end the game hitting 28 of 43 for 416 yards and three scores. Pitt had 636 total yards and converted 9 of 14 third-down plays.
“Just being able to read defenses,” Stinson said of Pickett. “We threw everything at him, one high, three high. He’s just a pretty good quarterback. He can read anything.”
Leonard played with a poise and confidence impressive for a true freshman and got Duke into a two-possession game with a five-yard TD pass to Durant, one of the few times Duke was able to get the ball to Durant in space.
“It was a really good play call,” Durant said “to get me the ball in space.”
The PAT made it 44-29, with 13:41 left, plenty of time for Duke to complete the miracle.
But Pitt is nationally ranked for a reason and Duke isn’t for a reason and that was about as much game pressure as Duke could apply. Pitt ended the scoring with an 11-play TD drive that burned 5:16 valuable minutes.
An aside on Durant. After review, the official scoring is that the botched handoff from Holmberg to Durant never reached Durant and Holmberg was assigned the loss. That left Durant with 24 rushes for 95 yards, putting him at 1,062 for the season, the first 1,000-yard rusher in Cut’s Duke tenure.
Now, Duke just has to find a way to have him set a record in a Duke win.
Cutcliffe said that there were some positives to build on. But Blacksburg awaits and that losing streak is getting longer and the end of the season is getting closer.