Entering the weekend without its starting quarterback, Pittsburgh looks to continue its recent success against the Blue Devils and gain its first victory against a Power Five opponent this season. 

The Panthers head to Durham with hopes of jumpstarting their offense and returning home with their first conference win. Although Pittsburgh is just 2-5, it has played one of the toughest schedules of any team in the nation. Three of the Panthers’ losses have come against top-20 opponents—then-No. 4 Penn State, then-No. 9 Oklahoma State and then-No. 20 N.C. State—and the other two defeats occurred on the road at Syracuse and Georgia Tech. 

Although Pittsburgh has struggled offensively thus far, averaging a mere 23.0 points per contest, the Panthers have scored at will against the Blue Devils since they joined the ACC in 2013. Pittsburgh has scored more than 48 points per game and holds a 3-1 record against Duke in that span.

“They can beat you in the kicking game, they can beat you with their offense and they play outstanding team defense,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s going to challenge all three phases of Duke football.” 

After losing former All-ACC running back James Conner to the NFL during the offseason, Pittsburgh took another hit last week when starting quarterback Max Browne suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. 

Sophomore Ben DiNucci took the reins following Browne’s injury. In his first career start Saturday against N.C. State, the Wexford, Pa., native completed 19-of-32 passes for 170 yards. Although DiNucci has not had an abundance of playing time, turnovers have been an issue for the sophomore, who has thrown three interceptions and three touchdown passes. 

In addition to being a work in progress in the passing game, the Panthers have been unable to find consistency on the ground. Led by 6-foot-2 redshirt junior Qadree Ollison, Pittsburgh has gained an average of 113.7 rushing yards per contest this season, but the Panthers were unable to get the job done against Georgia Tech and Rice, rushing for 37 and 69 yards, respectively, during those matchups. 

Duke has held its opponents to a mere 3.4 yards per rush in 2017, and cornerback Mark Gilbert thinks the Blue Devils have the right pieces to shut down Pittsburgh Saturday despite their frequent use of reverses and other creative plays.

“It can be a challenge,” Gilbert said. “They’re good at it, that’s what they do. So that’s definitely something we want to get down throughout the week—recognizing it and being able to recognize it Saturday.” 

Defensively, the Panthers have also been ineffective in defending the pass. Pittsburgh’s secondary has allowed opponents to gain 268.6 yards per contest in the air, which puts it at 111th in the nation out of 130 FBS teams in that category. 

This should be good news for the Blue Devils. After throwing for 305 yards against Northwestern, quarterback Daniel Jones has failed to return to his end-of-2016 form, when he boasted a 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in his final seven games. Jones has surpassed the 200-yard plateau just twice in Duke’s last five contests, and Pittsburgh’s loose pass defense may be just what he needs to get back on track.

The Panthers’ inability to stop the ground attack has also been an Achilles’ heel of sorts through their first seven games. Pittsburgh has allowed its opponents to rush for more than 176 yards per contest and should be fearful of the Blue Devil backfield. Redshirt freshman Brittain Brown and senior Shaun Wilson spearhead a unit that averages 190 rushing yards per game.

“You look at the run game defensively, we did some great things, and when you talk about three yards or less runs, we did a lot of great things,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said at his weekly press conference. “It’s a game of inches.”