Duke scored touchdowns on six of its first eight possessions, gained 619 total yards, and held a fourth-quarter lead.
Yet when the Blue Devils left the playing field at Heinz Field and entered their locker room Saturday night, their mood couldn’t have been more dour.
With a smashingly successful offense of its own, Pittsburgh rallied in the final quarter with 12 points over the game’s final 2:33 to steal a wild 54-45 win.
With all those points, yards and big plays, it was a memorable ACC football game for sure. Even Pittsburgh kicker Alex Kessman got in on the fun with a 54-yard field goal late in the third quarter.
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The Blue Devils (5-3. 1-3 in ACC), though, were a beaten team, both on the scoreboard and in their hearts and minds.
“It’s as down as you can get right now,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of the team’s mood postgame. “I don’t think anybody in there expected to not come up here and win. It’s about getting it done at the end of a game when you have to get it done. That’s a very difficult thing as a competitor and an athlete.”
Quarterback Daniel Jones played like the first-round NFL draft pick he’s projected to be. He threw for 396 yards and four touchdowns as seven different Blue Devils caught passes. Sophomore running back Deon Jackson set the school record for most total yards in a game with 403, including 162 rushing yards.
Still, Duke final touchdown came with 3:57 left in the third quarter on Johnathan Lloyd’s catch and run of a Daniel Jones short pass that turned into a 68-yard touchdown play. It gave Duke a 42-32 lead.
The Blue Devils ran 15 plays the rest of the game, netting just 80 total yards and only scoring on a Collin Wareham 25-yard field goal.
“We didn’t play well in the fourth quarter as an offense,” Jones said. “That’s what these ACC games are is four-quarter games. You can’t get away with not finishing. We know that. We just have to concentrate on executing every single play.”
Duke’s defense had easily its worst game of the season. Pitt ran for 484 yards on the way to 634 total yards. The Panthers drove 82 yards in the game’s final 1:14 to score the touchdown that put them ahead for good with five seconds left.
“After losing a game like that, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Duke safety Dylan Singleton said. “The team, I wouldn’t say we are demoralized. We’re just ready to get back to work next week.”
On special teams, Duke struggled covering kickoffs which allowed Pittsburgh to improve its field position. The Panthers averaged 19 yards per kick return. Their average starting position for the game was their own 26.
But in the fourth quarter, when Pitt held the ball for 10:53, its average starting field position was its 34.
“I think the biggest issue would be our kicking game,” Cutcliffe said. “We played from ahead all day. You score, you come up with a big kicking game play, you get a stop on defense, we suddenly get two scores up. That game changes. We just couldn’t ever accomplish that.”
The most telling example of that was in the fourth quarter after Wareham’s 25-yard field goal put Duke in front 45-42 with 8:07 to play.
Marcus Ffrench fielded A.J. Reed’s kickoff and returned it 36 yards to the Pitt 44. None of Reed’s three previous second-half kickoffs had been returned (two touchbacks and a fair catch). But the last one was and it allowed Pitt a short field.
So, having lost two in a row and three of its last four games, Duke has improvement to do as it continues to chase a sixth win for bowl eligibility.
The Blue Devils’ November schedule includes games at Miami (this Saturday), home with North Carolina on Nov. 10, at No. 2 Clemson on Nov. 17 and at home with Wake Forest on Nov. 24.
“This one is going to be difficult to put behind us,” Cutcliffe said, “but you put it behind you. We’d better. We’ve got tough folks laying ahead. We’ll continue to move forward.”
Jones, one of Duke’s captains, is confident the team will be ready to play at Miami.
“We’re disappointed,” Jones said. “That’s a tough way to lose. But just like last week, we found a way to get back our edge. We’ll come back ready to work. We can’t let it affect this next week of preparation.”