Pittsburgh holds off Duke in 58-55 shootout

lkeeley@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Observations

    A reporter made the comment that a few Duke players had mentioned they didn’t have the proper amount of energy and intensity to start the game. Cutcliffe shot down that notion.

    “That would be news to me,” he said. “I don’t know who said it, but they’re really not telling the truth. That team was about as cranked up as you can get. So, that’s just a player saying something. There’s no validity to that.”

    Thanks to Pitt’s offensive personnel, the Panthers don’t have to take many risks on that side of the ball. The Panthers have the luxury of throwing to long, athletic receivers in Street and Boyd (and quarterback Tom Savage has a big arm), and their running backs, Isaac Bennett and James Conner, protect the ball against potential fumbles.

    “They’ve got good football players in the right places,” Cutcliffe said.

— If there’s a silver lining in Duke’s 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh, it’s that the offense had a big day against an ACC-caliber defense. But, of course, that wasn’t enough since the Panthers gouged Duke’s defense for an even more productive offensive day. Running, passing, receiving, Pitt did it all, tallying 598 yards of offense with an average of 7.6 yards per play.

It’s not an effort problem, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. It’s an execution problem, making this the second week Duke has lacked the consistency needed to win an ACC game.

“That’s the part, early and late, I’m trying to figure out. Why? Why are we not executing?” Cutcliffe said. So far, the answer has proved elusive.

Despite all of the Blue Devils’ misfires – four interceptions, back-to-back long touchdown passes from Pitt quarterback Tom Savage, failed fake punts and onside kicks – Duke still had a chance to win.

Duke (2-2, 0-2) trailed by as many as 23 points during the second half, but Pitt was clinging to a 58-55 lead. The Panthers (2-1, 1-1) were facing third-and-7 at the Duke 39 with 2 minutes, 9 seconds left. The Blue Devils rushed four, but Savage had plenty of time to find Kevin Weatherspoon along the left sideline for a 15-yard gain. That completion allowed the Panthers to run down clock.

It was fairly remarkable that the Blue Devils found themselves in that position, given the way they started. Quarterback Brandon Connette threw two of his first three passes to Pittsburgh defenders, and the Panthers scored touchdowns on four of their first five drives.

The first interception, a ball thrown behind Max McCaffrey that was corralled by defensive back Jason Hendricks, was a result of Connette trying to force a throw where there wasn’t an opening, he said. The second was an underthrown ball that allowed cornerback K’Waun Williams to jump the route.

“I don’t need to manufacture plays,” Connette said. “I need to let plays happen.”

Connette was able to settle in and do just that until the fourth quarter, when he threw another pair of picks. The final one was particularly painful, as linebacker Anthony Gonzalez returned it 37 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers a 58-41 lead with 8:30 left.

“I was checking it down to the running back because they covered everyone else,” Connette said, noting that a backside slant to Jamison Crowder was covered by a safety and tight end Braxton Deaver also was covered on his stick route. “After those two reads, we check it down to the running back. The Will backer did a great job of cutting underneath the route. He made a nice play. Sometime the other team makes better plays than you do.”

Connette finished 21-of-32 (66percent) for 323 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. He made quicker decisions and was only sacked once. Connette also was Duke’s leading rusher, carrying the ball 15 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns. The six total touchdowns tied a school record, and he’s the first Duke quarterback to top 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the same game. Duke ran for a total of 213 yards, thanks to strong play from the offensive line.

Crowder also had a big offensive day, catching seven passes for 141 yards and taking two handoffs 29 yards. He accounted for three touchdowns, one receiving, one rushing and one on an 82-yard punt return on the only punt Duke forced during the first half.

That was the theme of the day: Duke’s defense couldn’t stop Pitt. Savage threw six touchdown passes, completing 23 of 33 passes for 424 yards. Receivers Devin Street (eight catches, 154 yards) and freshman Tyler Boyd (six catches, 166 yards) topped the 100-yard mark. And freshman running back James Conner rushed 26 times for 173 yards, an average of 6.7 yards per carry.

Duke’s defensive front – which is supposed to be the strength of the defense – couldn’t generate consistent pressure on Savage, with the exception of a late sack by Kenny Anunike. Outside of that and a sack by cornerback Garrett Patterson, Duke forced just one negative rushing play all game. And the secondary struggled, too, at one point giving up back-to-back touchdown passes of 67 and 69 yards to Street and Boyd, respectively, with safety Dwayne Norman getting burned on both.

“We just got flat-blocked,” Cutcliffe said of the early defensive struggles. “We couldn’t get off blocks. I’m sitting there looking, and everyone is stuck on a block.”

The defense’s woes meant that all of the offensive output went for naught, as 55 points weren’t enough.

“Overall I thought we played pretty good, outside of the turnovers,” Connette said.

Because of the defense, Duke’s margin for error on offense was much smaller than that.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service