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THE PITTS: Duke football's miraculous comeback bid thwarted by Pittsburgh

<p>Paris Ford intercepted two Quentin Harris passes, helping the Panthers storm to an early advantage.</p>

Paris Ford intercepted two Quentin Harris passes, helping the Panthers storm to an early advantage.

Every year, it seems like a promising Duke season comes crashing down in a heart-wrenching home defeat. Apparently, 2019 will not be the year to break that tale.

Facing a 26-3 deficit in the final minutes of the third quarter and defeat all but certain, the Blue Devils pulled off the near impossible, pulling ahead late in the fourth quarter. But Pittsburgh would have the last laugh Saturday night.

In one of the craziest games ever played at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils could not complete the miraculous comeback, falling to Pittsburgh 33-30. After looking lost for the majority of the evening, Duke quarterback Quentin Harris turned it around in spectacular fashion, totaling three touchdowns in the second half.

“We’ve emphasized four quarters in practice, we’ve always emphasized that, honestly,” Harris said. “And I thought that’s what you saw out there, a team fighting for four quarters. We put ourselves in a position to win the game, which was something to be very proud of, but ultimately we just didn’t come out on top.”

Starting at his own 14-yard line trailing 26-24 with the clock winding down, Harris’ first-ever opportunity at a game-winning drive didn’t look promising. His first two pass attempts fell incomplete, with the Blue Devils facing a third-and-10 that could very well determine their fate in the ACC Coastal division. A nine-yard completion to Scott Bracey kept the drive alive, with another third-down conversion coming two plays later via a 13-yard connection to Jalon Calhoun.

On the very next play, Harris found running back Deon Jackson open midfield. The pass connected, Jackson sprinted ahead of the defense and a 44-yard touchdown handed Duke its first lead since the first quarter.

But with just over a minute to go, Pittsburgh had time to answer. And answer it did.

Quarterback Kenny Pickett perfectly orchestrated the game-winning drive, with three consecutive double-digit yard completions advancing the Panthers all the way to the Duke 32-yard line. Two plays later, another 26-yard connection to sophomore V’Lique Carter gave the lead right back to the Panthers—this time for good—with 38 seconds remaining.

“[Carter] is a good little football player,” head coach David Cutcliffe said of that last play. “They caught us in a man blitz, and he’s out of the backfield...it’s very hard for someone to appeal that quickly when he took off. They just caught us in the wrong call. They had the right play call, we had the wrong play call for that play.”

The most controversial moment of the night came when Duke (3-2, 1-1 in the ACC) faced an eight-point deficit. Harris rushed for his second touchdown of the game, with the quarterback initially appearing to convert on his second two-point conversion attempt to tie up the score at 26.

But after a lengthy break, the referees determined that an official inadvertently called the play dead before Harris pushed his way across the line, forcing the teams to replay the two-point attempt. The Panthers would stuff Harris well behind the line of scrimmage on the do-over, keeping the score 26-24 in Pittsburgh’s favor.

“I don’t teach officiating, but I would think in a two-point play with an interior push, particularly with the rule like it is now where you can push a runner, that you would never want to signal anything too quickly,” Cutcliffe said. “But by rule, if there’s an inadvertent signal, we have to play the down over.”

Harris really struggled to open the contest, tossing interceptions on back-to-back drives in the first quarter that single-handedly gave the Panthers an early 10-3 edge. The first pick came on an intended pass to senior Aaron Young, a ball that was tipped into the air and caught by Pittsburgh’s Paris Ford, who returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. 

Just five seconds of game clock would expire before another Harris pass ended up in the hands of Ford, an interception that would lead to a Pittsburgh field goal and 10-3 Panthers advantage.

“I just didn’t have great awareness of the back safety on the second one,” Harris said. “I think the first one, I thought [Young] looked like he was getting held pretty bad. Looked like it might’ve even been a facemask. No call there, so can’t rely on that.”

Pittsburgh (4-2, 1-1) then threatened to blow the score open to begin the second quarter, driving all the way down to the Blue Devil nine-yard line. But Marquis Waters would intercept a Pickett dart at the goal line, a play that ended the Panthers quarterback’s streak of 162 consecutive attempts without an interception and seemed like it could finally turn the momentum in Duke’s favor.

Nevertheless, yet another three-and-out by the Blue Devil offense closed the door on that opportunity. A 32-yard shank by punter Austin Parker gave Pittsburgh the ball at Duke’s 45-yard line, quality field position the Panthers utilized for a 38-yard field goal later in the possession.

Another Duke three-and-out later, a 50-yard punt return by Maurice Ffrench opened the door for a 19-yard touchdown connection between Pickett and Taysir Mack, extending Pittsburgh’s lead to 19-3 entering halftime.

Somehow, Duke’s offensive woes seemed to get even worse in the second half. After a three-and-out to begin the period, Harris started the team’s second possession of the half by underthrowing a wide-open Aaron Young on a would-be touchdown. On the very next play, Pittsburgh’s Patrick Jones II pounded Harris inside the Blue Devil 10 yard line, with teammate Deslin Alexandre picking up the loose ball.

A four-yard Pickett pass to tight end Nakia Griffin-Stewart extended the Panthers’ lead to 26-3.

Almost as if fate fell sorry for the Blue Devils, a muffed punt handed Duke the ball at Pittsburgh’s 4-yard line with just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter. Harris immediately ran it in for the team’s first touchdown.

On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, another fumble—this time via wide receiver Dontavius Butler-Jenkins—gifted the Blue Devils the ball once again. And with the help of a pass interference call in the end zone, Deon Jackson would run it in for another Blue Devil score. A Jalon Calhoun sweep converted the two-point conversion, promptly shrinking the contest to a one-score game.

Pittsburgh’s comeback-inducing turnovers didn’t end there, though. On the Panthers’ very next drive, the first career interception for sixth-year senior defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord set up Duke’s offense at Pittsburgh’s 25-yard line with a chance to tie the score, an offensive possession that will live on in Blue Devil infamy. 

Duke now prepares to take on Georgia Tech next Saturday at 12:30 p.m., looking to get back in the win column as it continues its conference slate.

“[We have to] learn from this, learn from the film we got,” safety Michael Carter II said. “Just try to improve day by day, week by week, not dwell on it too long, because we know we got more ACC games coming up. So we just got to try and improve and win out.”

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