Three games, three losses by a touchdown.

To say that Duke’s season hangs in the balance would be a grave understatement. And after another head-scratching loss filled with unnecessary miscues, there seemed to be more questions than answers on the mind of head coach David Cutcliffe in his postgame press conference. 

At the season’s peak, following an emphatic 27-17 win over Tobacco Road rival North Carolina, it seemed as if everything that needed to fall into place was doing so. The defense convincingly stopped one of the nation’s most athletic teams in Baylor and held first-team All-Big Ten running back Justin Jackson to a mere 18 yards in the second week of the season. 

Against a Pittsburgh team absent its starting quarterback and winless in the ACC, every opportunity was there for the Blue Devils to take advantage. Duke could have predicted the Panthers would lean on their ground game after the loss of redshirt senior Max Browne. But the Panthers somehow torched the Duke defense for 336 yards on the ground, spearheaded by junior Darrin Hall’s record-setting afternoon. 

“We missed assignments,” redshirt sophomore Joe Giles-Harris said. “[It was] a lack of focus, and that's it. We didn't make enough plays."

Two Daniel Jones touchdown throws to start the third quarter created a stark momentum shift in the Blue Devils' favor following an uneventful first half. That momentum was only amplified after the Duke special teams unit pinned Pittsburgh inside its own 10-yard line on the ensuing kickoff. 

But with 23 seconds left in the quarter, Hall went untouched for 92 yards to shatter a 100-year old Panther record for the longest touchdown run in program history. That 92-yarder came after Hall’s 79-yard dash put Pittsburgh on the board in the first quarter. The Youngstown, Ohio, native finished with 254 rushing yards and three scores despite entering the contest with only 108 yards all season. 

“You may be playing the play that’s going to win or lose the game every down,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think I saw us playing that down like that.... You get a team in that circumstance where we covered a kickoff that well after scoring to go up by 10. You need to play that play like it’s going to win the game. Without seeing it [on film], I know we didn’t.”

It was clear from the start that redshirt sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci looked relatively raw and tentative in the pocket, leading Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to dial up the pressure early on. The Blue Devils succeeded in containing DiNucci, who finished with just eight completions for 149 yards, but they failed to contain the run. The Panthers rushed a whopping 57 times, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. The inability to generate stops on first and second down led to manageable third downs that opened up an array of options. 

Duke's early success defending the run has evaporated as quickly as it lingered, and it is clear that the Blue Devils need to make adjustments to get back to their winning ways. Duke travels to Blacksburg, Va. next week to play No. 14 Virginia Tech, a team that averages nearly 180 yards on the ground. It then grapples with Army and Georgia Tech, two option teams known for their ability to beat opponents with the run game. 

Beyond the run defense, a lack of consistency on all sides of the ball resulted in another frustrating setback for the Blue Devils. That inconsistency was on display in Duke’s final two drives in the fourth quarter, when it had a chance to bring the game closer both times. 

In the first opportunity, Austin Parker missed a 36-yard field goal to spoil a promising drive, and Pittsburgh ran the ball down the field, took the clock from 8:00 to 1:34 and kicked a field goal to go up by seven. The Panthers nearly doubled Duke's time of possession during the game, as their running backs wore down the Blue Devils' front six.

On Duke's final drive, the narrative repeated. Jones and the Blue Devils went from their own 27-yard line to the Pittsburgh 29 in less than 45 seconds, before a pass off the hands of Daniel Helm was intercepted, ending the game.

Whether the team cannot execute in clutch situations or lacks a go-to weapon remains unclear, but as the same story repeats itself week after week, there is one thing that is for certain: the ship, once cruising, has started to take on water. 

That leaves an urgent question—how big is their bucket?

“You've got to put your boots on, get your lunchpail and go to work every day,” Giles-Harris said. "Just because things hit you one way, you can’t fold up, and that’s not what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out and keep fighting and do what we have to do to produce some wins.”