So here’s Duke, waking up on a Sunday morning wondering what the heck happened a few hours earlier as one day blended into the next with business unfinished.
Durham after dark provided a night of madness for both the Blue Devils and Pittsburgh Panthers, who battled Saturday night in a wacky ACC game that ended around midnight with Pitt winning 33-30.
Duke turned the ball over six times. Pittsburgh countered with four. The Panthers were whistled for 15 penalties.
Once trailing 26-3 in the third quarter, Duke scored a two-point conversion that everyone thought tied the game 26-26 in the fourth quarter only to have officials decide that line judge Peter Beratta’s inadvertent signal meant those two points had to come off the scoreboard and the try replayed.
“Really unfortunate,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after the game.
That’s okay. The Blue Devils scored on a 44-yard Quentin Harris pass to Deon Jackson with 90 seconds to play to take a 30-26 lead anyway.
Their comeback from 23 points down was complete. Or so they hoped.
Pitt responded by driving 82 yards on four plays with quarterback Kenny Pickett firing a 26-yard touchdown pass to V’Lique Carter with 38 seconds left to put the Panthers in front for good.
In addition to providing the game-winning points, that drive allowed the Panthers to finish with 337 total yards of offense, a rather pedestrian number by today’s standards in college football.
Duke’s defense, while not great, played relatively well until the Panthers moved the ball with ease on that final drive to snatch the victory.
Wrong defense for the play
Cutcliffe fretted a little about the game-winning touchdown, which came on a play when Duke sent a blitz at Pickett. Carter came out of the backfield uncovered to catch the ball over the middle. He used a nifty spin move to elude Duke safety Marquis Waters around the 10-yard line before sprinting into the end zone.
“Our defense did some really good things,” Cutcliffe said. “Unfortunately 19 (Carter) is a good little football player. They caught us in the wrong call. They had the right play called. We had the wrong thing called for that play. Nobody needs to beat themselves over that. That’s part of it.”
Yes, that was only part, albeit the final part, of this weird game that saw Duke lose for the sixth time in seven years to Pittsburgh.
The three-game winning streak Duke carried into the game, coming off a stellar 45-10 bashing of Virginia Tech, is done. The Blue Devils (3-2, 1-1 ACC) had a chance to flex their muscles and assert themselves as a major player for the Coastal Division title.
Instead, they made so many mistakes they couldn’t overcome them, even on a night when they revealed toughness of spirit and character.
“We have to be efficient in all three phases, better than we are,” Cutcliffe said, speaking of his team’s offense, defense and special teams. “We don’t practice poorly, so you have to look at a lot of different things to come up with efficiency because this team practices really well.”
Bad night for Quentin Harris
Harris, Duke’s redshirt senior quarterback, had a dreadful time of it against Pitt’s hard-charging and hard-hitting defense. He was sacked three times after suffering a sack only once over Duke’s first for games.
He fumbled three times, losing all three, and threw two interceptions. One interception was returned 26 yards by Paris Ford for Pitt’s first touchdown.
“I have to take care of the ball better,” Harris said. “The first half, I was making some errored throws and put us in some bad positions but the defense was able to stand tall and get some of the possessions back with limited points.”
Duke’s defense held out as long as it could. The Blue Devils offense, eight days after looking so strong at Virginia Tech, looked overwhelmed throughout the first three quarters.
Harris had completed 72.7 percent of his passes entering the game. He was 18 of 43 (41.9 percent) for 165 yards against the Panthers.
Cutcliffe admitted that perhaps he and offensive coordinator Zac Roper gave Harris too much in this week’s game plan.
“We felt good about ourselves and we should, we’ve got a good offensive team,” Cutcliffe said. “But I think when you start trying to do -- and it was purely me -- as much as we did then I think you are asking a quarterback to put himself in a pretty tough circumstance. We kind of got back to bread and butter and we were better. We’ll be better learning from this game.”
What Duke did display was a toughness to keep fighting even when it trailed by 23 points and all hope appeared lost. A Pitt fumbled punt late in the third quarter gave the Blue Devils a glimmer of hope and they pounced on it to unleash an epic comeback.
Even though the game turned into a loss, there’s value in that experience for Duke.
“Not that we didn’t put ourselves in the circumstance, we did,” Cutcliffe said “But it takes a lot of heart against a good football team to come back and eventually take the lead. It took a lot of heart to recover from having to run a two-point play twice.”
The blundered call
That official’s error brought back awful memories of another October night at Wallace Wade, when Miami used eight laterals and a series of officiating errors to steal a win from the Blue Devils in 2015.
That Duke team saw that one gut-wrenching loss become a four-game losing streak.
This year’s Blue Devils, with struggling Georgia Tech coming to Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday, have to flush this tough loss and end the pain now. Games with ACC Coastal Division foes Virginia and North Carolina follow the clash with the Yellow Jackets.
“This hurts,” Cutcliffe said. “But you can’t let it hurt long. We’re not going to let this loss turn into affecting the next game. We put it behind us. There’s a million things you’d like to do over. But you can’t. But what you can do and have to do is learn from them.”