Duke

Duke football’s key against Pitt? Keep the quarterback from getting sacked.

Part of the reason Duke’s completed a higher percentage of passes than any other ACC team so far this season is the protection quarterback Quentin Harris is being afforded.

In four games, including one against No. 1 Alabama, Duke’s offensive line has allowed just one sack.

With that kind of backing, Harris carries a league-best completion percentage of 72.9 into Saturday night’s game with Pittsburgh.

“We all really bought in and decided that we wanted to be one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Duke junior right guard Rakavius Chambers told The News & Observer in an interview following Tuesday’s practice. “Each day in practice, that’s our mindset that we are the best offensive line in the country. We know that if we give Q (Harris) and the rest of our skill guys enough time, big plays are going to happen.”

That line’s confidence and early reputation, though, will be tested sternly against Pitt. The Panthers defense already has 24 sacks, second in the country and tops among ACC teams.

Be it with straight-on pass rushes or creative blitz packages to overwhelm blocking schemes, the Panthers have already made a habit of creating havoc for opposing offenses.

“I think that if you’ll look at the game, you have to look at that,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I mean, they’re terrific. 24 sacks, second in the country. We’ve done a good job to this point but it’s always just to this point. That’s a huge matchup.”

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Pitt racks up the sacks

Pitt (3-2, 0-1 ACC) already has three games where it has recorded six sacks this season. One came when the Panthers beat No. 18 Central Florida 35-34 on Sept. 21. Pitt even had three each in its two losses -- 30-14 to No. 23 Virginia and 17-10 to No. 12 Penn State.

“They do a great job there,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re different on third down than they are in first and second down. They rotate and play a lot of people. It’s not just that they’ve got a lot of ability, you can tell how well coached they are. They’re fierce competitors.”

Duke (3-1, 1-0 ACC) must concern itself with slowing down sophomore defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman, who has six sacks. Linebacker Kylan Johnson has four.

The Blue Devils haven’t allowed any sacks over the last three games, all wins. The only team to sack Harris was Alabama back when the Crimson Tide beat Duke 42-3 on Aug. 31 in Atlanta.

That’s given a revamped offensive line, with three new starters, confidence that’s growing with each week. That’s allowed Harris to thrive in his first season as Duke’s starting quarterback.

“One thing we pride ourselves on is communication between the offensive line and the quarterbacks,” Harris said in an interview last Friday after the win at Virginia Tech. “To only have one sack on the year so far is a testament to our communication and their ability up front. They are doing a great job of blocking guys. I’m trying to get the ball out quick, so they don’t have to strain for too long. But I just think we’re working real well together.”

Chambers joins center Jack Wohlabaugh as Duke’s two returning starters on the line. After just two starts over his first three seasons, redshirt senior Zach Baker won the starting left guard job in August camp.

Redshirt freshman Casey Holman (left tackle) and freshman Jacob Monk (right tackle) round out the starting five along Duke’s line.

Freshman tackles

Using freshmen at the tackle spots looked like a gamble heading into the season-opener against Alabama, but Holman and Monk are playing well.

“Those guys have been phenomenal,” Chambers said. “I can always depend on the right tackle, Jacob Monk, every single play. Casey Holman is as solid as ever. When you have guys like that playing, even though they are young, it allows you to play free. You are confident they are going to do their job and that you can depend upon them.”

Harris has taken advantage to complete 86 of 118 passes for 842 yards in Duke’s four games. He’s thrown 11 touchdown passes and three interceptions. He’s also recorded 100-yard rushing games in Duke’s last two outings on the way to a team-best 303 yards.

Keeping that kind of production up against a Pitt defense that’s pounded quarterbacks this season won’t be easy. But the Blue Devils are relishing the opportunity.

“Playing against teams that are throwing different blitzes at you all the time, you are countering with your different plays,” Chambers said. “That’s the game within the game. That’s what makes football so much fun.”

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

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.
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