PITTSBURGH What a difference one week makes.
Just nine days after a thrilling upset win over North Carolina, the Duke Blue Devils were unable to build on any momentum that win might have created with a mistake-filled 56-14 blowout loss at Pittsburgh.
It was not only Duke’s worst loss of the season by a significant margin, the 42-point deficit was its worst loss since a 49-point defeat at the hands of then-No. 1 Alabama back on Sept. 18, 2010.
On Saturday, the problems for Duke started almost immediately.
On the second play from scrimmage running back Shaun Wilson fumbled to put the Pitt offense in business at the Duke 17-yard line.
Two plays later, Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman found a wide-open Dontez Ford in the end zone after safety Alonzo Saxton II lost his footing and slipped to the turf.
It was a sign of things to come on the day for both teams.
“I don’t think you have to go back and really dissect what happened,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after the game.
“What happened is just too vast. All three phases there were breakdowns in every aspect, whether it was ball security, giving them uncontested touchdowns, giving up a punt return touchdown, fumbling a kickoff return. If you do enough things like that you are going to lose without having to worry about dissecting every little detail. The thing we have to do is focus on how we are going to respond to this.”
Even when the Blue Devils looked as if they might be able to keep pace with Pitt’s high-powered offense, it was almost always immediately answered by another Pitt score.
On Duke’s second offensive series quarterback Daniel Jones orchestrated a masterful five-play, 59-yard scoring drive that ended with a 6-yard strike to Chris Taylor.
The Duke defense responded by allowing Pitt to march 64 yards on eight plays on a drive that was capped off with a James Conner 1-yard score to help Pitt regain the lead. They would add to it on a 56-yard Quadree Henderson touchdown run on a jet sweep play that has become the signature play of the Pitt offense.
Late in the second quarter, just as Pitt appeared to be pulling away, Duke cornerback Bryon Fields made what seemed to be at the time a game-changing play when he picked off a Peterman pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to seven.
Pitt instantly answered with a 56-yard Peterman touchdown pass to Jester Weah.
It was at that point when things really started to unravel for Duke.
After Jones drove the Blue Devils deep into Pitt territory late in the second quarter, kicker A.J. Reed missed a 31-yard field goal, his sixth miss of the season on nine attempts, going into the half. Pitt then took the opening second-half kick-off and marched 71 yards on a scoring drive that ended with Conner’s second touchdown of the game. That touchdown gave Conner the ACC records for most rushing (50) and total (53) career touchdowns. He finished the day with 101 yards on 14 carries.
“I thought the first half was a solid game,” Cutcliffe said. “We had the turnover early, they took advantage of it, and it kind of gave them an extra possession, but we could have still been there at 28-17 going into the half and maybe recovered. But we did anything but that.
“I have always believed the first possession of the third quarter can affect the game. Unfortunately so can the last possession of the first half. I love to defer, get the ball, score of the last possession of the first half, score the first possession of the second half, and unfortunately that is what we let them dominate and do. We had a good drive, but then we go down there and miss the chip-shot field goal.”
Henderson pretty much put the game away later in the third quarter when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown to put Pitt up 42-14.
Big plays aside, where Duke really lost the game was at the line of scrimmage.
While the Blue Devils were limited to just 25 yards rushing on 22 attempts, allowed five sacks, and couldn’t keep Pitt’s front seven away from Jones, the Panthers churned out 224 yards and four touchdowns on the ground, while they also kept their quarterback standing upright all day.
“If you don’t move the ball between the tackles it is hard to run the ball,” Cutcliffe said.
“They leverage you pretty well with their alignment, so they challenge you to run between the tackles and we did not get that job done today. They are very good at running the power game, they did a great job getting the ball outside on us, they just did a better job running the ball schematically, they did a better job blocking us, they did a better job protecting the passer than we did. The bottom line is they won the battle at both lines of scrimmage, but they also won the execution battle, and that’s why the score is as lopsided as it is.
On the rare occasion Jones was able to get enough time to get rid of the ball, drops plagued the Duke receivers. He finished the day 28-for-46 for 248 yards and a touchdown.
Duke closes its season next Saturday at Miami
“Responding to being shell-shocked like this has never been easy,” Cutcliffe said. “But unfortunately it is something we have all had to do in this business. I have had to do it here at Duke, at Tennessee, at Ole Miss, it is just a part of the business. I think it tells you an awful lot about your people. So I am anxious to see what our tomorrow looks like. Not that we forget this, but we have to move forward. We have an outstanding Miami team looming on the road.”