David Cutcliffe knew it was a good sign.
North Carolina was down by one point with less than a minute to play. It was third down, and UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky lofted a pass up the middle.
Cutcliffe knew it was thrown under pressure by the way it floated in the air.
“There’s a little security when you see a ball go up like that,” the Duke coach said after the Blue Devils stunned No. 15 North Carolina with a 28-27 victory Thursday.
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Trubisky’s final pass attempt landed in the arms of junior defensive back Alonzo Saxton II, Duke’s second interception of the game, both coming after halftime.
Duke’s defense played a standup game against one of the most efficient offenses in the ACC, led by one of the conference’s top quarterbacks.
“That felt great,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m really happy it was Alonzo. I’d be happy with any of them, but Alonzo’s had a special year. If they gave All-American awards for coverage and all-around special teams play, he’d be a first-team All-American.”
Saxton was part of a secondary responsible for doubling Trubisky’s interception total over the season in one night. It played without senior starter Breon Borders (hip), while true freshman Mark Gilbert replaced him.
“(Breon) congratulated me (after the game),” Gilbert said. “With this game being my first start ever, it was really big for me to go out there and be able to hold my own, and I think I did that. We knew (North Carolina) wanted to attack us deep, we knew that all week. I think we did a great job.”
Gilbert had seven total tackles against the Tar Heels and is expected to start again when Duke (4-6, 1-5 ACC) travels to Pitt on Saturday. Gilbert grew up a Pitt football fan.
Borders had two key pass breakups in his last game against Virginia Tech. That brought his total to 34, second on Duke’s all-time list.
Borders is not expected to play in Pitt game.
Pitt will meet the Blue Devils coming off a stunner of its own. The Panthers (6-4, 3-3) took down previously undefeated Clemson, 43-42, on Saturday.
“I’ve been watching tape, very familiar with their team,” Cutcliffe said of Pitt in his teleconference Sunday. “These are almost the same guys we played against a year ago, so many returning starters, a big, physical offense line.
“As I looked at tape in the summer, I thought they were one of the best returning teams in the conference.”
Duke gained some traction in a very important win over UNC Thursday, but Pitt gained some momentum of its own.
It is possible for the Blue Devils to get to a bowl game with five wins, but Cutcliffe said he wouldn’t count on it – they need both games against Pitt and Miami, their regular-season finale.
“I think they understand what they have to do to win. I know the challenges,” Cutcliffe said. “I wouldn’t tell anyone to count on it at five (wins). You better take care of business to get six. It’s a big challenge. It’s obviously one of the motivations for our guys without question.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan