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Duke football ready for best chance yet to snap skid against Pittsburgh

<p>Daniel Jones enjoyed better protection against Florida State last week and will get a chance to break out against a vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary.</p>

Daniel Jones enjoyed better protection against Florida State last week and will get a chance to break out against a vulnerable Pittsburgh secondary.

Desperate to overcome a three-game losing streak, Duke hopes to beat Pittsburgh for the first time since 2014, erasing the looming 56-14 blowout loss from last year.

After a 4-0 start to their season, the Blue Devils are now more than halfway through the regular season and four games into ACC play but are still struggling to put points on the board. Quarterback Daniel Jones hasn’t thrown a touchdown since the second quarter of a 28-21 loss to Virginia Oct. 7 and has only one other touchdown since an impressive 41-17 victory against Northwestern, when he threw for two touchdowns and ran for another two.

The Blue Devils showed some improvements against Florida State, keeping the game close and protecting their redshirt sophomore quarterback. The offensive line gave up two sacks against Virginia and five against Miami, but held Florida State to only one.

“It’s not as simple as waking up and realizing your quarterback is getting hit too much,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “One of the better things we did today was our blitz pickup work and taking better sets. It requires a lot of work and understanding.”

Although the Panthers only have nine sacks on the season, Duke will have to be wary of the Pittsburgh defensive line and continue improving what has been a weak spot in its offense.

The possible return of offensive tackle Gabe Brandner will further help the Blue Devils (4-3, 1-3 in the ACC) in this regard, as the redshirt senior is one of the most experienced offensive players on the team and an essential component to protecting Jones. The South Carolina native went down in the first half of the Virginia game with a hamstring injury and didn’t return, but is listed as probable to play Saturday. Redshirt junior Christian Harris replaced him in the game and started in his place against Florida State.

“Being able to protect Daniel better than in weeks past against a great defense like Florida State was a huge confidence boost,” right guard Zach Harmon said. “We’re going to use that as ammunition and fuel for next week.”

If Jones gets more time in the pocket to deliver, it would bode well for Duke against a Pittsburgh team that plays a lot of high-scoring games—opponents are averaging 31.4 points per game this year against the Panthers (2-5, 0-3). A struggling Duke offense will look to take advantage of this opportunity to get back on track, giving Jones and his offense the confidence they need to start putting up points again. 

The Panthers have also had serious trouble defending the run, giving up an average of 176.1 rushing yards per game. This will also play into the Blue Devils’ hands, as they average 190.4 rushing yards per game and scored their only touchdown in the Florida State on a 9-yard run by Brittain Brown. 

If Duke can capitalize on the Panthers’ weak defense by pushing the ball down the field, then the team could have a chance at reestablishing the success it had in earlier games against teams like Northwestern. 

“It’s very important for us to be successful on first downs, not just so we have a shorter second and third down,” Harmon said. “Going out and starting a drive, getting four, five, six yards, something little like that, really motivates us.”

Both teams are struggling in conference play, with all of Duke’s three losses on the season coming to ACC opponents and the Panthers still looking for their first ACC victory. Although Pittsburgh has struggled to keep opponents from scoring, the Panthers have also put up some high-scoring games themselves, averaging 23.3 points per game, which will put pressure on Duke’s offense to keep up.

“I think we have to finish drives,” redshirt junior tight end Davis Koppenhaver said. “We’re moving the ball well; we just couldn’t finish once we got past the 40 or 30. Things start with running the ball, establishing the run, getting the defense on their toes and opening up the passing game. Last week was a step in the right direction for sure.”

On the defensive end, Duke has strong leaders in redshirt sophomore Joe Giles-Harris and senior Alonzo Saxton II, who lead the team in tackles at 67 and 52, respectively. Pittsburgh only averages 6.8 yards per pass, which should allow the Blue Devil secondary to play tight coverage.

Duke’s resiliency as a team against injury and its ability to rearrange its game when something isn’t working, due to its depth, is a key component to its success.

“You saw five wide receivers at times, so just keeping the defense on their toes and trying to get mismatches is the key,” Koppenhaver said.

With the Blue Devils on a two-game losing streak against the Panthers and a three-game losing streak this season, their season could start to slip away with another loss. However, Duke is favored for the first time nearly a month and has its best chance yet to snap its skid.


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