David Cutcliffe sought to steel his team’s focus, rather than dampen a beautiful moment.
In brief comments after his Duke Blue Devils pummeled Virginia Tech 45-10 last Friday night, Cutcliffe reminded his ecstatic players that their next challenge is a mighty one.
Even while piling winning seasons and bowl appearances on top of each other over the last seven seasons, no team has been tougher for Duke to beat than Pittsburgh.
Since entering the ACC, Pitt owns a 5-1 record against the Blue Devils while scoring 50 or more points three times.
So in the afterglow of last week’s impressive win at Blacksburg, Va., Cutcliffe and the Blue Devils are focused on repeating that kind of effort and attention to detail to end their struggles against Pitt when they play Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“You don’t even have to tell our players, they’re very aware,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday during a news conference. “But you can’t just talk about something and get it done. How are you going to prepare? What are you going to do during the week differently than what you’ve done? How much more tape are you going to watch? How much more focused is your practice? How much more rest are you going to try to get to where you’re at your best on Saturday night? Those are all things we talked about Sunday and I talked briefly about it after the game in Blacksburg. A bigger challenge this week. Each week it’s going to be a new and sometimes bigger challenge. This one is definitely new and bigger.”
The Blue Devils (3-1, 1-0 ACC) carry a three-game winning streak into Saturday’s game after pummeling the Hokies in their conference opener. Pitt (3-2, 0-1 ACC) has won its last two games, including a 35-34 upset win over Central Florida on Sept. 21.
So both teams are playing confidently.
But Duke has the added challenge of removing any doubts that may creep in when Pitt is the opponent.
Duke vs. Pitt
This series began in 1929, when the teams played the first game at the stadium now known as Wallace Wade Stadium, but only became an ACC rivalry in 2013 when the Panthers played their first season in the league.
Duke won a school-record 10 games that season, winning its lone Coastal Division championship. But that didn’t stop the Panthers from beating Duke 58-55 in a wild September game at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Blue Devils took a turn winning a shootout in 2014, posting a 51-48 overtime win at Heinz Field.
Since then, Pitt has defeated Duke by scores of 31-13 in 2015, 56-14 in 2016, 24-17 in 2017 and 54-45 last season.
While senior linebacker Koby Quansah said Duke has “a little revenge tour on our mind against every team we lost to last year,” Pitt has been particularly troubling. The Panthers rushed for 484 yards against as Duke’s defense struggled with tackling and assignments in last season’s game.
“Our main thing is to stop the run,” Quansah said after practice Tuesday while speaking with reporters. “I know last year they put up a lot of numbers on the ground. Our main goal is to eliminate the run and the rest will take care of itself. We have to be assignment sound and the rest will come.”
That rushing total the Panthers rang up last season is part of a trend in this series. The Panthers are known for a physical style of play and, frankly, Duke hasn’t been up to that challenge.
Getting prepared for the Panthers
Duke’s veteran players, like Quansah and fellow senior captain Quentin Harris, inform younger players about those experiences with the goal of getting everyone prepared to finally turn things around against Pitt.
“That’s the beauty of the conference matchups and when you stay in a conference you kind of learn what to expect,” Cutcliffe said. “I hear our older players telling the younger players what to expect from Pitt. They have great respect for the Pittsburgh program and the Pittsburgh team.”
Despite the lopsided nature of this series, Duke has Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi’s attention. That’s particularly true for Pitt’s defense, which is not only preparing to try and stop Duke’s base spread offense but the triple-option plays the Blue Devils are mixing in to boost their running game.
“The more success they have the more you’re going to see it,” Narduzzi said Monday during his weekly news conference in Pittsburgh. “We’ve got to nail that down, try to take them out of that and let them get back to their normal offense.”
While Duke will be without junior running back Brittain Brown, who was scheduled for season-ending shoulder surgery Thursday, Harris and running backs Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant have proven solid. The Blue Devils are averaging 4.74 yards per carry and 194.3 yards per game, both fifth-best in the ACC.
On Saturday, we’ll see if the Blue Devils can finally shake the hex Pitt seems to have over them.
Pitt at Duke
When: 8 p.m., Saturday
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham
Watch: ACC Network
Listen: WRBZ-99.3, WDNC-620 Raleigh; WRBZ-96.5, WDNC-620 Durham; WBCN-94.7, WHVN-1660 Charlotte