Duke’s defense struggles yet again in 31-13 loss to Pitt

Pitt wide receiver Dontez Ford (19) reels in a touchdown pass in the third quarter over Duke cornerback Jeremy McDuffie (9).
Pitt wide receiver Dontez Ford (19) reels in a touchdown pass in the third quarter over Duke cornerback Jeremy McDuffie (9). cliddy@newsobserver.com

Senior captain Jeremy Cash doesn’t think Duke’s defense has lost its edge. Maybe people are tired or not focused, the safety said, but still, in his mind, they haven’t lost their edge.

That’s where the Blue Devils’ defense is right now: a place where there are no easy answers for why they have imploded over the last month of the season – no easy answers, that is, past the obvious one.

After the 31-13 loss to Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils’ third in a row, though, head coach David Cutcliffe rejected the idea that the Miami, North Carolina and Pittsburgh offenses were just flat-out better than Duke’s defense.

“No,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not that simple. We are better than that. We are better than that,” he repeated.

In Duke’s first five games against FBS opponents—with a combined 19-31 record—the Blue Devils gave up an average of 11.2 points a game. In their last four games—combined record of 27-13—that number has jumped to 35.8 points per game.

For the first half of Saturday’s game, the defense was fine, as the two teams played to a 10-10 tie. But in the second half, it was all Pitt’s offense – the Panthers had the ball for 22:39 of the final 30 minutes. Duke’s defense couldn’t get off the field, giving up three touchdown drives to open the final half that put the game out of reach.

Two key third-down penalties, on Cash and cornerback Breon Borders, extended the Panther’s first scoring drive in the third quarter. And a huge missed opportunity to recover a Tyler Boyd fumble –both Dwayne Norman and DeVon Edwards had their hands on it before it was recovered by Pitt – was key in the second.

“There’s no reason to sugarcoat,” Cutcliffe said. “The second half, we didn’t represent any part of who we want to be.

“We got out-blocked, out-tackled, out-hit. Their playmakers made critical plays at critical times. We didn’t.”

Cutcliffe for his part, was willing to question Duke’s edge. He doesn’t know if there is a psychological hangover from the bizarre ending of the Miami game or whether the drubbing by UNC has left an impact either.

“Are we fragile? Quite possibly,” Cutcliffe said. “That happens in life. That’s something that we talk about and even work about.”

All the mental theories and wondering would go away if Duke could just physically make plays. One of the biggest issues this year has been a lack of explosive plays on both sides of the ball.

The defense has struggled to create turnovers all year, and this game was no exception, with Pitt’s only fumble coming in fourth quarter garbage time, after the scoring was done (and one play after Duke’s Ryan Smith fumbled a punt to the Panthers). That gives the offense minimal margin for error.

The loss certainly wasn’t the fault of Duke’s offense. Parker Boehme, making his first career start, was serviceable, not turning the ball over until a garbage-time fumble and interception once Duke had abandoned its regular offense for the two-minute drill. The offense just didn’t have many opportunities, running just 65 plays, compared to Pitt’s 81.

This isn’t the ending Cash envisioned when he proclaimed that “the road for the Coastal goes through Durham” on Sept. 26, after the Blue Devils beat preseason favorite Georgia Tech 34-20. Instead, about two months later after Duke’s final home game, he was talking about how he was reduced to tears.

“To be honest with you, it hurt. I shed a few tears after the game and throughout the game,” Cash said. “I really didn’t want my career here to end like that. It’s part of the game, you win some, you lose some.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley

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