Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, this season has been quite unkind to Duke.
Although head coach David Cutcliffe's team sits just one win away from billing another bowl game, frequent injuries and a pair of ACC losses have kept the Blue Devils from building momentum through the season.
If Duke wants to get back on track, yet again it has to take on an unpredictable conference opponent.
The Blue Devils will travel to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Coming off an embarrassing home loss to Virginia, Duke will be looking to punch its ticket to its second straight bowl game. However, standing in the way of the Blue Devils is a Pittsburgh team that Duke has not notched a win against since 2014, and will be fighting to remain bowl eligible themselves.
"To repair things, it has to be all of us, and I made that point loud and clear," Cutcliffe said. "We started well Sunday. Everybody has to be accountable, everybody has to join in to do what we have to do to be a better Duke football team.... We will certainly prepare for Pittsburgh in all aspects—defense, offense, kicking—but will also repair our football as this week goes on, and with that, we have to do that daily."
Luckily for the Blue Devils (5-2, 1-2 in the ACC), Duke can translate much of its strategy from games against Army and Georgia Tech to Saturday's matchup.
Although Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett was billed as a long-range sharpshooter early in the season, Pittsburgh's receiving corps have not been able to deliver. Although Pickett sits at a 62.4 percent completion rate, the Panthers average only 145.9 per game through the air with just six receiving touchdowns through the season. As such, Pittsburgh has relied on strength in its run game to blow through opponents.
Unlike the Yellow Jackets or the Black Knights, the Panthers (3-4, 2-1) are not a true option team. However, their offensive scheme shows flashes of similarity to those previous Duke opponents, as Pittsburgh has embraced a run-first, throw in emergencies mentality.
Headlining the Panthers' running game are Qadree Ollison and and Darrin Hall, a pair of veteran backs who each average over six yards per carry. Ollison in particular will be the driving force behind Pittsburgh's offense, as the redshirt senior averages 92.3 yards per game. The Blue Devils will have to rely on their defensive line and elite linebackers to stop the Panthers right in their tracks.
"Last year, the one thing that hurt us [against Pittsburgh] was a lack of discipline as far as doing our job," said sophomore defensive end Victor Dimukeje. "This year we’re doing more to prepare everybody, which means everybody is doing their job on defense. If everybody does their job, we’ll be able to get the job done."
Although redshirt junior Joe Giles-Harris has been steadfast for the Blue Devils, notching 58 total tackles through the season, fellow linebacker and senior captain Ben Humphreys went down hard last weekend against the Cavaliers. With Duke already digging deep in the roster for defensive linemen after losing redshirt senior Edgar Cerenord to a ruptured Achilles', the Blue Devils will be particularly hard-pressed in stopping Pittsburgh's run game.
If Duke's defense can't hold off the Panthers' run, the Blue Devils could still eke out a win by leveraging their own offense against Pittsburgh's mediocre defense.
Outside number one option receiver T.J. Rahming, Duke quarterback Daniel Jones has been able to find reliable targets in Chris Taylor and Jonathan Lloyd. Pittsburgh sits at No. 76 in the nation at receiving yards allowed with 13.1 yards per completion. If Jones' throws remain on target, Duke may be explosive enough to outpace the Panthers.
"A lot of it goes back to creating explosive plays," Jones said. "I don’t think we’ve done that great. That will be a focus of ours. Pitt has a good scheme and good players so, we just have to understand it’s going to be a physical game and we have to consistently be executing and creating some explosive plays if we want to put ourselves in a position to win."
Without top running back Brittain Brown and shifts in the offensive line due to injury, Duke's running game has suffered in the past few weeks. However, true sophomore Deon Jackson has picked up much of the load, averaging 53.1 yards per game. Combined with Jones' ability on his feet, the run may also be a viable option for clawing out extra yardage against a highly physical Pittsburgh defense.
"It's is something new to me," Jackson said on taking over the running game. "I really didn’t do that in high school. I always had somebody come in and split reps. [I’m] just making sure I stay conditioned and stay in stop shape and make sure I’m handling everything correctly. It's been a big change for me, but it's something I think I can handle and the coaches think I can handle."
With just four games left in the season after the Panthers—two of which include matchups against Miami and Clemson—Saturday's game is a crucial opportunity to lock up a trip to the postseason.
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