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Extra point vs. Pittsburgh: Duke football's late comeback attempt spoiled in ACC home opener

Both offenses struggled, as the teams totaled ten turnovers and more punt yards than offensive yards
Both offenses struggled, as the teams totaled ten turnovers and more punt yards than offensive yards

Duke lost in heartbreaking fashion to Pittsburgh on the 90th anniversary of the grand opening of what is now Wallace Wade Stadium, a 1929 contest that also ended in a defeat to the Panthers. The Blue Zone gives three key takeaways, stats, and looks forward for the Blue Devils:

Three Key Takeaways:

1. Duke brought down to Earth

After a 35-point win at Virginia Tech, it seemed as if the Blue Devils could win it all. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point: Duke actually looked like a good football team last week. That point isn’t actively being disputed, but the team’s performance against Pittsburgh does cast doubts over the legitimacy of this team. Duke's first half performance was atrocious, and before they knew it, the Blue Devils were in a 19-3 hole. Although head coach David Cutcliffe's squad picked it up in the second half, the Duke defense, surely exhausted from being on the field for a large portion of the game, was unable to stop Pittsburgh's game-winning drive with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter. The loss was heartbreaking, but it wasn’t the end of the world. The Blue Devils may have just earned another chip on their shoulders, just in time for the second half of the season.

2. Penalties determine game outcomes

On paper, Pittsburgh’s 145 penalty yards look much worse than Duke’s 60, but trust me, penalties brought a lot of suffering to the Blue Devils as well. On multiple occasions in the first half, what appeared to be a stalled Panthers offensive drive was rejuvenated due to a foolish Duke penalty. The renewal of such drives oftentimes gave Pittsburgh much better field position, which subsequently led to more ball movement and momentum. Had the Blue Devils been able to string together a few defensive stops without penalties in the first half, the game may have had a much different trajectory.

3. Trust the team’s past success

On his way out of the locker room after halftime, Cutcliffe was stopped by the ACC Network’s Katie George, who asked him what adjustments he had to make at the half. His answer was simple: to return to the style of football Duke had been playing the past few games. Despite the final score, the strategy worked. Quentin Harris’s performance as a passer improved, as did his ball security. The defense stopped committing foolish penalties. All in all, Duke’s performance in relation to that of Pittsburgh’s looked much better. In fact, it looked as if the Blue Devils would mount a comeback near the end of the game. Although they weren’t able to finish the job, they showed that their past successes happened for a reason. Moral of the story? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Three Key Stats:

1. Ten turnovers combined

In some instances, it seemed like neither team wanted to win this game. In the first half, Harris fumbled the ball on the Blue Devils’ second offensive drive, and threw two consecutive interceptions in the ensuing possessions. In the second half, he lost another two fumbles and wide receiver Aaron Young threw an interception of his own. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, started the game clean, finishing the first half with only one interception thrown. In the second half, however, their play became sloppy, with three consecutive possessions ending in a muffed punt return, fumble and interception, respectively. It almost seemed as if each team was giving the other the ball as a 90th anniversary gift. Speaking of giving the ball to the other team...

2. More punt yards than offensive yards 

Both teams added the air raid scheme to their playbooks today. Unfortunately, it was installed upside down, and the punters became the primary directors of the scheme rather than the quarterbacks. There were 15 total punts in the game for 645 yards compared to 625 total offensive yards, which is a great stat if you don’t like football. It’s a surprise the teams had the time for all of those punts considering the number of turnovers in the game. Maybe next week we’ll see teams skipping offense entirely.

3. Five straight coin toss wins for Duke

The Blue Devils are undefeated when it comes to coin tosses this season. Simple calculations (thanks Duke math department) reveal that theoretically speaking, there’s a 3.125 percent chance that a team wins five consecutive coin tosses. To put that in perspective, the chance of that happening is the same as what Duke’s acceptance rate will probably be three years from now. If the Blue Devils find a way to translate coin-toss victories to football victories, they will be a very scary team to play against.

Looking Forward:

Duke hopes to avenge this loss with a homecoming win against Georgia Tech next Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The Yellow Jackets come in to the game with a record of 1-4 after a loss to North Carolina at home. Look for a motivated performance by the Blue Devils, who will be looking to win in a dominant fashion and keep their name in the ACC Coastal conversation.


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