PITTSBURGH—Hoping to clinch bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season, Duke fell short against a physical Pittsburgh team.
With a 54-45 loss at Heinz Field, the Blue Devils remain in postseason limbo, sitting at just five wins.
Following a dreadful offensive performance in its 28-14 loss to Virginia last Saturday, Duke could not be stopped by the Panthers, with its largest scoring output against an FBS opponent since 2015. The back-and-forth contest featured few defensive stops and drama. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Pittsburgh’s offense proved to be even more difficult to contain, with its 35 second-half points sparking a comeback win.
“I learned years and years ago that you never forget how to count to six in this profession. You’re a fool if you do,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Our focus right now with bowl eligibility is to prepare the little things in order to look like a bowl team.”
Panther quarterback Kenny Pickett methodically led the offense down the field, culminating in a 25-yard touchdown pass to Maurice Ffrench with five seconds remaining to secure the victory.
Although Duke (5-3, 1-3 in the ACC) entered halftime with a 21-17 lead, the first half marked numerous missed opportunities to blow the game open for the Blue Devils.
With just under six minutes remaining in the first half, the normally sure-handed Daniel Helm dropped a 24-yard strike from Jones in the right corner of the end zone. Helm’s blunder forced a failed fourth-down try two plays later, leaving Duke with nothing to show for the drive.
“That was a costly mistake. I need to take better care of the ball,” Jones said. “I can’t be doing that with an opportunity to get points there going into the half, especially knowing we were going to get the ball back.”
The offense again came up empty-handed on its final drive of the second quarter, as Jones fumbled on a pass drop-back due to a missed assignment from running back Deon Jackson.
Despite the disappointing mistakes, the Blue Devils moved the ball with ease, with 314 total yards in the first half.
On the other side of the ball, Duke had a similarly inconsistent first-half performance. Although they held Pickett to just four completions in the half, the Panthers (4-4, 3-1) broke off numerous long gains, including a 50-yard Ffrench touchdown.
Duke's rushing defense had a disastrous day, as Pittsburgh accumulated 484 yards on an outstanding 9.3 yards per carry.
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In the second half, the Blue Devil offense showed no sign of slowing down, with three quick touchdown drives to open the third quarter. Jackson looked explosive, with a 74-yard touchdown catch and runs of 60, 50 and 21 yards. The sophomore running back finished with 298 total yards, averaging 16.2 yards per carry, playing nearly every snap.
“The main thing we focus on practice is conditioning, so I felt pretty conditioned," Jackson said. "Playing all of these snaps these last couple weeks kinda caught up with me a little bit, so I did need come out on a couple of plays, but I know the team and coaches rely on me.”
A leaky Duke defense forced the game into a high-scoring affair, and Pittsburgh answered with three scores of its own in the third quarter. The Blue Devils’ 619 total yards gained and 634 allowed were both season highs, indicating a style of play that was atypical to the normal Duke brand of football.
After the Panthers tied the game at 42 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Jackson again delivered an explosive play, as he scampered for 50 yards to set up a go-ahead Collin Wareham field goal.
In spite of an apparent momentum change, the Blue Devil kick return coverage allowed Pittsburgh to start at their 44-yard line. The Panthers converted their favorable field position into three points, evening the score at 45.
“This was a tough way to lose, but just like last week we need to get back our energy and edge,” Jones said. “Last Sunday was as good a Sunday that we have had, and we expect the same tomorrow.”
The defense will need to shore up before Duke travels next weekend to take on an underachieving Miami squad, which has dropped its last two contests to Virginia and Boston College despite a No. 8 preseason ranking.