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Five observations from Duke football's first half against Pittsburgh

Kick returner Jaylen Stinson had an 86-yard touchdown return during the first half.
Kick returner Jaylen Stinson had an 86-yard touchdown return during the first half.

Kenny Pickett and the high-powered Pittsburgh offense came to Durham Saturday afternoon for an ACC Coastal matchup. Despite Duke coming in as 21-point underdogs, the Blue Devils have given the Panthers a fight thus far and go into halftime down 30-19. Here’s our observations from the first half. 

Five observations: 

Get Bobo the ball: Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg chose senior Jake Bobo as his go-to guy to pass to. Bobo proved to be a wise passing choice as he nabbed multiple receptions in the first minutes of the game, including 22 yards across three receptions in the first Duke drive. By the end of the first half, Bobo had seven receptions, five more than any of the other receivers. 

Fumble!: Both teams had a fumble and recovery in the first quarter. Duke’s came first, while the Blue Devils were on the one-yard line with nine minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Blue Devils looked to be having a strong start against Pittsburgh but combined efforts by Bobo, Mataeo Durant and Jordan Waters were set back by a fumble in a handoff between Holmberg and Durant. This led to the Panthers capitalizing on the turnover with a touchdown. The fumble and following touchdown broke Duke’s initial momentum, but the Blue Devils fought for a safety that led them to recovery.

Gunnar slinging: Holmberg quickly got into the swing of things, making few errors and finishing around the 100-yard mark in the first quarter. This was a big improvement compared to Holmberg’s last game against Wake Forest where the graduate student finished with an overall 110 passing yards. Holmberg slowed down by the second quarter, but still managed to finish with 174 yards. He left the game at the end of the second quarter after being hit hard behind the line of scrimmage, and Duke will need him to return in the second half. 

All-around offense: Duke’s success in offense proved to really be a team effort as there was depth across the lineup. Jalon Calhoun, Eli Pancol and Bobo each brought in more receiving yards in the first half than they did in the entire Wake Forest game last week with 53, 34, and 43 yards, respectively. Although a number of Duke’s receivers stepped up this first half, Jarett Garner, who had the second most receiving yards against Wake Forest, took a step back this half with only six yards. 

No more special teams struggles: This season, the Duke special teams units have struggled at times, but Saturday kicker Charlie Ham, punter Porter Wilson and kick returner Jaylen Stinson made positive impacts. Ham drilled his 46-yard field goal, Wilson flipped the field backed up in his own end zone with six minutes left in the half and Stinson delivered an 86-yard kick return for the touchdown. 

By the numbers:

  1. 217 total yards: This Blue Devil offense is moving the ball down the field in a manner much more reminiscent of its productivity prior to the Virginia and Wake Forest games. Holmberg’s pocket presence has been the catalyst of the resurgence, but Durant’s hardfought yards on the ground cannot be overlooked. 
  2. 5 tackles for loss: The Duke defense injected life into this team after the Blue Devils’ first drive ended in a fumble on a muffed handoff between Durant and Holmberg. In addition to the huge stripsack and safety, the Blue Devil defense set up camp in the backfield all half and the stats reflected that.
  3. 86 yards: That’s how far Jaylen Stinson ran on the kick return after the Panthers retook the lead via a 47-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Addison. Stinson weaved his way through the Pittsburgh defenders and dodged the Panther kicker on the 40-yard line to take it to the house. 

A play that mattered:

A Duke fumble followed by a Pittsburgh touchdown was setting the tone for a rough game for the Blue Devils. Although after breaking away from that first strong start, Duke was able to bounce back with their first safety since Nov. 28, 2020 against Georgia Tech. Even just a few points up on the scoreboard helped bring back Duke’s confidence that resulted in further recovery as the Blue Devils closed out the first quarter with a touchdown and five-point lead over the Panthers.

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