Pittsburgh set to renew its storied history with Duke football
Thanh-Ha Nguyen / The Chronicle
The Blue Devils and Panthers will play their first-ever conference contest when they square off on the gridiron for the 18th time Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. The first time the teams met was Oct. 5, 1929, for the first-ever game at the brand new Duke Stadium—Wallace Wade wouldn't take over as the team's head coach until two years later. Pittsburgh drubbed Duke 52-7, a result that the Blue Devils hope will change 84 years later.
"The only thing that's frightening is they played the game, and the stock market crashed October of 1929. I don't know what that means for us and Duke football, so people better be careful with their investments," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I think it's pretty neat, there's no question. I have a sense of history and like all of that, and you can feel those ghosts sometimes."
After falling to the Panthers in 1937, the Blue Devils got the best of Pittsburgh in 1938, when the fourth-ranked Iron Dukes defeated No. 3 Pittsburgh 7-0 to complete a nine-game regular season unbeaten and unscored upon.
At the teams' last meeting in 1976 the second-ranked Panthers defeated the Blue Devils 44-31 at Wallace Wade Stadium. Running back Tony Dorsett wouid go on to capture the Heisman Trophy that season before the Panthers—led by head coach Johnny Majors, who mentored Cutcliffe at Tennessee—captured their last of nine national championships.
Not bad for two teams who haven't seen each other in 37 years.
"Pitt is Pitt. If you know anything about Ditka, Dorsett, Mark May—he'll like that I used his name—if you know anything about Pitt, then you understand football," Cutcliffe said. "I like the brand that they bring. Western [Pennsylvania]—is really good football. Deep, deep traditional, good football."
Even as conference newcomers, Pittsburgh still boasts one of the top receiving tandems in the ACC. Redshirt senior Devin Street and true freshman Tyler Boyd combine to form a lethal 1-2 punch for the Panthers, who continue to grow with first-year starter Tom Savage under center.
"They're tall, they run well and they run a lot of deep routes," redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "They go get the ball, so they're going to present challenges for us, there's no question about that."
Street was a preseason all-ACC selection by Sporting News, and standing at 6-foot-4, should be the toughest matchup Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell has faced this season. Boyd burst onto the scene last week in a blowout win against New Mexico, catching six passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot-2 receiver poses major matchup problems for opposing corners with his blazing speed, but should be a good match for the Blue Devils' Garett Patterson, who has speed to burn as well.
"Garett has always been one of the more athletic corners we've had," Cockrell said. "He probably has close to a 40-inch vertical, runs a 4.4 [40-yard dash]—one of those kind of guys."
After losing the battle in the trenches to Georgia Tech last week, Duke will face another tough challenge with Pittsburgh's offensive line. Four of the Panthers' offensive lineman stand at 6-foot-6, and guards Cory King and Matt Rotheram tip the scales at 325 and 340 pounds, respectively.
Pittsburgh's size up front lends itself well to its power running style, which differs from most ACC teams and should present an interesting dichotomy as the Panthers continue to face new conference opponents.
Utilizing a two-headed rushing attack with James Conner and Isaac Bennett—with the versatile Boyd occasionally taking carries out of the backfield as well—Pittsburgh enters Saturday's game averaging a whopping 6.2 yards per carry on the season.
"I expect Pitt to come out and be physical and try to run the ball. We have to try and take that away from them," defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. "They're big and they're good at what they do. Their big guys move exceptionally well."
As the Panthers head south for their first road game of the season, Duke will write another chapter in its history with Pittsburgh that spans back nearly a century.
"It doesn't expect me that a Paul Chryst-coached football team plays really hard, really physical and they will play 60 minutes," Cutcliffe said. "This sets up to be a really, really good ACC football matchup."