DURHAM — If theres a silver lining in Dukes 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh, its that the offense had a big day against an ACC-caliber defense. But, of course, that wasnt enough since the Panthers gouged Dukes 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.
Its not an effort problem, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. Its an execution problem, making this the second week Duke has lacked the consistency needed to win an ACC game.
Thats the part, early and late, Im 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 wasnt an opening, he said. The second was an underthrown ball that allowed cornerback KWaun Williams to jump the route.
I dont 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 Dukes leading rusher, carrying the ball 15 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns. The six total touchdowns tied a school record, and hes 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: Dukes defense couldnt 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.
Dukes defensive front which is supposed to be the strength of the defense couldnt 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 couldnt get off blocks. Im sitting there looking, and everyone is stuck on a block.
The defenses woes meant that all of the offensive output went for naught, as 55 points werent enough.
Overall I thought we played pretty good, outside of the turnovers, Connette said.
Because of the defense, Dukes margin for error on offense was much smaller than that.