One stop. That’s all Duke defense needed in overtime.
And, despite how the game had gone up until that point—Pittsburgh had only punted once and was averaging 6.9 yards per play—the Blue Devils’ defense had a reason to be optimistic.
"That’s a part of playing defense," safety DeVon Edwards said via phone after Duke’s 51-48 win. "You never know what’s ahead."
Immediately ahead once overtime started was more of the same—three James Conner rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown. But that gave Conner a career-high 38 carries on the day—a yeoman's effort.
Conner finished with 263 yards, also a career-high, on those carries. But he was on the sideline as Pitt’s offense started the second overtime, which came directly after his pounding 14-yard touchdown run.
Still, Edwards wasn’t willing to say the Blue Devils broke Conner down.
"I’m not sure how much you can wear down a big guy like that," Edwards said. "I don’t know how much he can get affected by a couple of hits."
The ensuing 1st-and-10 play for Pitt was one of the most crucial of the game. And speaking of key plays, here are five, listed in chronological game order:
During Duke coach David Cutcliffe’s pregame speech, he was standing in front of a board with several last-minute reminders for his team.
The first: The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win!
The second: Play for and make the breaks, and when one comes our way…SCORE!
This was the only true "mistake" of the game. The Panthers lined up for a 48-yard field goal try—and the holder, Ryan Winslow, couldn’t the bad snap down on the grass. Chris Blewitt didn’t even get a chance to try to kick the ball as Bryon Fields tackled Winslow for a 10-yard loss.
And Duke would take advantage of the break and the short field with a 60-yard touchdown drive.
6-foot-7 Erich Schiender hasn’t exactly had an easy time finding a niche at Duke. His freshman year, he was a little-used receiver who caught one pass for 13 yards. He was a healthy redshirt as a true sophomore as he transitioned to tight end. Coming into the Pitt game, he had caught three passes for six yards and one touchdown.
But Schiender was quarterback Anthony Boone’s target on a crucial 3rd-and-4 attempt with less than a minute remaining before halftime. He was split out wide right in a four-receiver formation and ran a short curl route right at the first-down marker. Panthers safety Ray Vinopal, for some reason, gave Schiender about a seven-yard cushion and didn’t hit him until after he caught the ball. The four-yard catch gave Duke just what it needed the first down. That was the only third-down attempt and conversion on the Blue Devils touchdown drive just before the half that tied the game at 28-28.
Entering this game, Duke’s defense had been the definition of bend-don’t-break—the Blue Devils were 4th nationally in scoring defense (yielding an average of 15.1 points per game) but 68th in total defense (398 yards per game). Obviously that all went out the window Saturday, but the bend-don’t-break made a cameo here.
Senior Dezmond Johnson rushed quarterback Chad Voytik unblocked from his left defensive end spot, unfold by the play-action on the right side of the formation. So, as Voytik turned around, Johnson was there to swallow him up for a tackle for loss of 10 yards. That knocked the Pitt offense off schedule—a situation particularly tough for power running teams to overcome—and set up 3rd-and-11 at the Duke 20-yard line. The Blue Devils pressured Voytik again, and the Panthers settled for a 38-yard field goal.
In a shootout like this, holding a team to a field goal is a fairly significant accomplishment.
And right after the aforementioned 38-yard field goal, Blewitt sent his kickoff to DeVon Ewards, who fielded it at his 1-yard line. Working from the right hash, Edwards was able to shed a tackle attempt by Pitt’s Isaac Bennett, who lunged at him around the 13-yard line. Edwards worked his way left, where he picked up key blocks from Johnson, Shaq Powell, Terrence Alls and David Reeves. By the time he reached the 30-yard line, Edwards had kicked it into another gear and had nothing but grass in front of him. And 99 yards later, Edwards was in the end zone, putting Duke ahead 38-31.
It was his third career kickoff return for a touchdown, all of which have come in conference play in November.
"It was a great set up," Edwards said. "All I had to do was sell it and then use my feet to get to the corner. Shaq and Dezmond and Corbin (McCarthy), all of them did a great job in kicking their guys out. Once I saw they had kicked their guys out, I turned it off right off of their bet. Off to the races it was."
Just one stop.
With Conner on the sideline, the Panthers gave the ball to freshman Chris James. Safety Jeremy Cash was able to meet him at the line of scrimmage and, along with Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo, stop James for no gain. That knocked Pitt off schedule, throwing off their preferred steady diet of runs. Voytik couldn’t gain any yards, either, on second down, and third-and-long was similarly unsuccessful. Settling for the 43-yard field goal—17 yards longer than the chip shot Blewitt shanked at the end of regulation—proved costly, as a Duke touchdown on the ensuing possession ended the game.
Sirk only played two snaps, but they were certainly two impactful snaps. The first came with 3 seconds left before halftime, as Sirk entered the game and ran one yard up the middle into the Pitt end zone for the game-tying touchdown at 28-28. And the second snap came on the last play of the game—3rd-and-2 from the Pitt 5-yard line, which also resulted in a touchdown run.
Sirk hasn’t automatically entered the game on third-and-short this year, leading some (me, especially) to wonder how much faith Cutcliffe had in his running specialist quarterback. Obviously, after today, the answer is a lot.
Only in college football can a coach call back-to-back timeouts. And, with three timeouts, Cutcliffe could have called back-to-back-to-back timeouts in attempt to ice Blewitt on his 26-yard attempt to win the game.
"I was just trying to break a rhythm and maybe set our own rhythm," Cutcliffe told reporters after the game. "I knew I wasn’t going to take the third one, and I told our team that, too. I think about how to manage the end of games and I was trying to give our players the best chance to win. It seemed like the right thing to do."
Judging by the 45-degree angle of Blewitt’s kick—that thing never had a prayer to split the uprights—Cutcliffe strategized correctly.