It was nervous laughter, the kind that comes out reflexively when someone isn’t quite sure what to say.
After all, what could a member of Duke’s defense say about last year’s 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh? It’s a question that came up constantly Tuesday as the No. 24 Blue Devils (6-1, 2-1 ACC) prepare to face the Panthers (4-4, 2-2) at noon Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
“Any time you have a high-scoring game, that reflects on the defense. We did allow a lot of big plays,” redshirt senior defensive end Dezmond Johnson said after his initial throat chuckle. “We’re coming in and expecting to not let that happen again.”
The numbers from that rainy September afternoon are big and ugly: 598yards of offense for the Panthers, with an average of 7.6 yards per play. Both of Pitt’s main skill players this year – sophomore running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd – had huge days: Conner rushed 26 times for 173 yards, an average of 6.7 yards per carry, while Boyd caught eight passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns.
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“It’s a little demoralizing,” senior linebacker David Helton said, adding his own empty laugh. “You don’t want to be in that type of game, because you don’t feel proud of it, essentially. You’re just kind of praying for a stop, and that’s a bad position to be in mentally and physically.”
The difference between then and now is significant, though, Helton said. The early 2013 defense tried to believe in itself – but it hadn’t proven anything. Of course, after the Pitt game, the Blue Devils won their final eight regular-season games, surprising everyone outside of the program as they took the Coastal Division championship.
This year’s defense, in contrast, comes up with stops when they’re most needed.
Duke has the textbook definition of a bend-but-don’t-break defense. The Blue Devils rank fifth nationally in scoring defense, yielding just 15.1 points per game. But the unit gives up an average of 398 yards per game, which ranks 67th.
That’s quite the disparity.
“Everything statistically is about points per game,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s the only thing that will ever matter in football.”
“To continue to be stingy with points, you would think we would feel challenged, our players need to feel challenged, to give up less yards and to get off the field, to become better and getting three-and-outs and creating turnovers,” Cutcliffe added. “Then you’re going to stay in that lofty position.”
Despite everything that went wrong last year when the Panthers came to town, Duke managed to climb out of a 23-point hole during the second half and close within 58-55 with just over two minutes to play. Pittsburgh was facing third-and-7 at Duke’s 39, but the four-man rush couldn’t disrupt the pass, which resulted in a 15-yard gain down the left sideline. And that was that.
Cutcliffe said several times that last year’s game would have no bearing on what happens this year. And he said that without any hint of nervous laughter – just calm, collected confidence.