As Duke heads toward the last leg of its season Saturday, one question remains—do the Blue Devils have what it takes to recover?
Last week's loss came as no surprise—No. 10 Wake Forest remained undefeated and added a loss to Duke's resume. The Blue Devils headed to Winston-Salem, N.C., coming off a trio of losses, a stat not suitable for any squad's morale.
With just four games remaining and an upsetting track record up to now, a match against Pittsburgh this weekend seems troubling. The Panthers (6-2, 3-1 in the ACC) come to Durham featuring wins against impressive teams such as Georgia Tech and Clemson. Besides playing Wake Forest last week, Pittsburgh is Duke's second match against a ranked team, and if the Blue Devils compete at the level that they did last Saturday, they can expect to be blown out of the water again.
Here are five things to look for as Duke takes on Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh's quarterback Kenny Pickett will lead the Panthers Saturday, and it is evident he will do so through carrying his team with his arm. Based on Pickett's stats, Duke's quarterback Gunnar Holmberg has his work cut out for him Saturday. The Panther's captain tops Holmberg by 895 passing yards this season, and the two share the same completion rate of 69.2%. Earlier this season, Holmberg sported the top completion rate in the ACC at 72.5%, but lately, the Blue Devils have played sloppily—trying to pick up the pieces in matches that they were down early in instead of keeping it close until the end.
In scouting the opponent, it's crystal clear that Pickett has been the Panther's key to executing explosive offensive plays. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe himself acknowledged that "in their offensive system, he owns it" and that how they play offense is "built around him."
‘Mega numbers in the passing game’
Perhaps what has led to Duke having a more potent offensive game in the past is its passing ability. The days of playing football as a running game are long gone—at least from the offensive standpoint. Cutcliffe has only had one top-25 postseason ranking in his 13 seasons at Duke, in a year headlined by the work of two quarterbacks, Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. In tandem, the two leaders brought the Blue Devils to a total of 3,472 passing yards for the 2013 season, along with the 2013 ACC Coastal Division Championship.
Without a quarterback, or two for that matter, who can register a remotely similar number, Duke has been unable to remake the magic of that winning season. Yet, its opponents have been able to do so this season, with the Blue Devils trailing behind its opposition in passing yards 2,035 to 2,356. Duke's loss to other teams in passing yards has been one of its primary downfalls because good passing leads to more touchdowns recorded, and the Blue Devils also fall in that category with six to their opponent's 18.
Where things get complicated for Duke looking forward to playing Pittsburgh is that the Panthers do generate "mega numbers in the passing game," as Cutcliffe said. Pickett has already recorded 2,755 passing yards this season to register 26 touchdowns. With the likes of a handful of powerful wide receivers and running backs, the Panther's depth is a stumbling block.
Playing the mental game
Through the struggle that has gone down this season and in a bird's eye view, the past few seasons, many people want to know what it means for the program's future. Specifically, people are looking to this next offseason and wondering what changes may come if the Blue Devils cannot perform better in the last stretch of the season. Yet, that seems to be the last thing on both Cutcliffe's and senior running back Mataeo Durant's minds because, with one month left of games, both agree that this time should have a focus on "putting those players in position to win," as Cutcliffe put it.
If what Cutcliffe says rings true, Saturday's game should be an execution of this. According to redshirt senior cornerback Leonard Johnson, the Blue Devils will go into the match with the same mentality they always have while also "figuring out some ways to execute and step things up."
Sympathy for the Blue Devils
A defining part of Duke’s season has been its aptitude in the face of injury.
Johnson had an injury at the Georgia Tech game. Last week, Holmberg injured his finger during the first quarter, but returned to the game and Cutcliffe announced he practiced at the team's Sunday session. The injuries that team leaders Johnson and Holmberg and other players faced this season have been a struggle to the team’s power on the field.
Yet, Cutcliffe does not believe that any recent affliction that players on his roster have faced will impact their playing style against the Panthers. Referring to Holmberg specifically, Cutcliffe said that he “understands what the difference in pain and injury is.” With a quarterback who can rock back from an injury as quickly as Holmberg has, there is some improving optimism of how Duke will play against Pittsburgh. And with some improved morale, who knows how well the Blue Devils will kick off their offensive plays.
Last week, the Panthers fell to Miami in a close game. Despite getting the first touchdown, the Hurricanes had a quick change in momentum that let them to rack up 21 points to Pittsburgh’s 10 in the first quarter. Miami dominated the rest of the half until the Panthers finally sprung forward, looking to defeat them. However, the team could not garner the four points needed to win in the last quarter, leading to a surprising loss.
Coming off a losing match to play the Blue Devils, if the Panthers play the same quality of defense, they can expect the Blue Devils to get some tackles on the books. A comparison of the two teams’ defenses this season notes that Duke has more recorded tackles at 573 than Pittsburgh’s 504. In a game that is likely to be defensive for the Blue Devils, their solid defense will be what we hope they have prepared the most for this week. Last game, Leonard Johnson put on his best show of the season, registering nine tackles. If the new captain plays at the same level, or as we expect, even more potent this week, there is a good chance this match will be a lot closer than previously expected.
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.