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Scouting the opponent: Pittsburgh football also riding high after major upset

<p>Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman has been one of the most efficient passers in the ACC this season.&nbsp;</p>

Pittsburgh quarterback Nathan Peterman has been one of the most efficient passers in the ACC this season. 

Coming off its own high-profile upset during the most dramatic weekend of the college football season, the Panthers are hoping to avoid the lulls that have plagued them so far in ACC play.

Just two days after Duke upset then-No. 15 North Carolina, Pittsburgh went into Death Valley Saturday as nearly three-touchdown underdogs but managed to knock off previously-unbeaten Clemson 43-42 on a 48-yard field goal from Chris Blewitt in the game’s waning seconds. Blewitt—who shanked a potential game-winner from just 26 yards out when the Panthers and Blue Devils matched up at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh two years ago—had his earlier 53-yard field goal attempt blocked by the Tigers.

Despite the earlier setback, the senior came through in the clutch, giving his team its third conference win of the season and making the Panthers bowl-eligible for the ninth straight year.

“It was a statement win for the program, for the university,” Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi said at his weekly press conference. “I don’t think there was anybody outside the walls and doors of this room that believed that we could go down to Death Valley and get it done. But the kids in here believed…. We were so close so many times this year to really get one of those top-25 knockoffs, but we didn’t get it done.”

Like Duke, the Panthers have found themselves in close battles in every game this season other than a 51-28 drubbing at the hands of Miami Nov. 5.

Pittsburgh lost one-score games on the road at Oklahoma State and North Carolina as well as at home against then-No. 25 Virginia Tech, but managed to escape with three-point victories against Penn State and Georgia Tech early in the season.

Although they have been inconsistent, the Panthers’ win at Clemson should give them a major boost as the regular season winds down. Pittsburgh beat Duke 31-13 last season and finishes the regular season against Syracuse.

“We both beat ranked teams and obviously, you come out excited,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “[Momentum has] got to carry over to the practice field. You don’t carry momentum from a Saturday to a Saturday or a Thursday to a Saturday. You hopefully carry it to Sunday…. You hope you continue that the rest of the week and then you have some momentum.”

Unlike its opponent, however, Pittsburgh brings an experienced lineup into Saturday’s matchup.

The Panthers boast the third-ranked scoring offense in the ACC at 37.6 points per game—behind only No. 3 Louisville and No. 5 Clemson—led by a trio of upperclassmen in redshirt senior quarterback Nathan Peterman, redshirt junior running back James Conner and senior tight end Scott Orndoff.

After missing essentially all of 2015 with a right MCL injury suffered in Pittsburgh’s season opener last year, Conner announced that he had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last December. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound running back was declared cancer free in May and has more than made good on his promise to return to the football field this fall.

The Panther captain ranks fifth in the conference in rushing and has racked up 12 touchdowns, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Two years ago in Pittsburgh’s double-overtime 51-48 loss to Duke, Conner dominated the Blue Devils for 263 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries.

The Panthers also have a change-of-pace back in Quadree Henderson, meaning Pittsburgh will provide another test for the Blue Devil defensive front.

“You’ve got to win the battle up front,” Duke sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “You’ve got to stop their run, which is tough to do. They put six, seven linemen in the game, heavy packages and they hand the ball off to [Conner]. And they’ve been doing that since he’s been there. It’s tough to stop.”

Peterman has been one of the most efficient passers in the conference this year, completing more than 60 percent of his passes and 19 touchdowns against four interceptions.

Last season, the Jacksonville, Fla., native easily handled the Blue Devil secondary to the tune of three touchdown passes, and another solid performance from the Pittsburgh signal-caller could pose serious problems for a banged-up Duke defensive backfield. The Blue Devils started freshman Mark Gilbert in place of senior Breon Borders against North Carolina.

“You can sit there and say, ‘Stop the run, stop the run,’ which you’ve got to, but they’re very capable of throwing the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “I would think the first thing you’ve got to do when you look at Pitt is [limit] their explosive plays. You’ve got to align well. They do a lot of shifts and motions—they steal your eyes.”

Despite success on the offensive side of the ball, the Panthers struggle defensively. Pittsburgh has the ACC’s worst scoring defense—opponents are averaging 35.2 points per game—and it surrenders almost 450 yards per game.

Yet like its offense, the Panther defense is similarly physical and tough-minded. Up front, defensive lineman Ejuan Price leads Pittsburgh with nine sacks and three forced fumbles.

Along with fellow lineman Rori Blair, the Panther defensive front could challenge an emerging Duke ground game—one that has tallied more than 225 yards in each of its last three contests sparked by quarterback Daniel Jones.

“We know they’re great at stopping the run,” Blue Devil center Austin Davis said. “Our goal is to move them around and be physical as an offensive front. They have a great pass rusher, but I have great faith in our tackles that they’re going to be able to block him down when they need to and we’re going to get the job done up front.”

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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