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PICK(ETT)-ED APART: Duke football falls to Pittsburgh on Homecoming weekend

<p>Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for over 400 yards against Duke.&nbsp;</p>

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett threw for over 400 yards against Duke. 

With alumni and family in the stands, on a perfectly crisp autumn day for football, the Blue Devils could not give the fans what they wanted to see.

Duke was thoroughly beaten by Pittsburgh 54-29 as star quarterback Kenny Pickett picked apart the Duke secondary, tallying 416 yards through the air and three passing touchdowns, as well as a rushing TD of his own. The Blue Devils took a lead early, but a surge by the Panthers late in the first half proved to be the push they needed, taking a two score lead into halftime and never letting go. 

It just wasn’t in the cards for the Blue Devils (3-6, 0-5 in the ACC) on a windy Saturday in Durham, with starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg exiting the game late in the second quarter following a hard hit by Pittsburgh defensive tackle David Green. Holmberg came up holding his arm close to his chest, and headed to the sideline. Riley Leonard took his place, and the offense just didn’t look the same, with Holmberg failing to emerge back onto the field for the remainder of the ballgame.

“I thought Riley Leonard did a good job coming in after Gunnar was hurt,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We don't know where things are going to be with Gunnar until tomorrow but I thought Riley came in and really competed hard. Did he do some freshmen things? Yes. And that that can happen. But just great game experience for him.”

The Pittsburgh offense came out of the tunnel in the second half having settled in despite occasional missteps in the first half, ripping off a 75-yard drive in just over two minutes of game time. Pickett found tight end Gavin Bartholomew in the flat, who then chewed up the green grass in front of him and lunged in for the score. 

The drive took just six plays, and gave Pittsburgh (7-2, 4-1) an 18-point lead early in the third quarter.

And though the Blue Devil defense often failed to keep Pickett and company out of the end zone, it certainly did its part in giving the offense extra chances to punch the ball in themselves. Along with a safety recorded in the first quarter, the defense recovered two fumbles—one on Pickett’s first snap of their second offensive drive, and the other in the middle of the third quarter when it looked as if Pittsburgh was going to open up a four score lead.

Linebacker Dorian Mausi punched the ball out of the hands of receiver Jaden Bradley with just over 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, and Duke jumped on the ball in plus territory. Emblematic of the day, however, was the subsequent showing by the offense, managing just three points to cut the lead to 15 despite excellent field position. 

“I would say on defense we would have a series of two good downs, and then give up a third down conversion,” Cutcliffe said.

Perhaps the diamond in the rough for the Blue Devils was the oft-mentioned special teams unit, something Cutcliffe has always taken pride in. 

With 11:48 in the second quarter, following a 47-yard touchdown by Pittsburgh, Jaylen Stinson received the ensuing kickoff on his own 14-yard line, and beat the 11 Panthers on the field to the opposite end zone for the 86-yard score. Add that to a 2-for-2 day for kicker Charlie Ham—including a boot from 46 out—and special teams did exactly the job they were supposed to do.

“Our kicking game had some good moments,” Cutcliffe said. “I'd like to see some consistency with our specialists. But there were some positive things there. And we're looking for the positive things to build on and that's going to continue to be the push.”

Though the scoreline suggests a largely defensive failure, there was no shortage of missed opportunities on the offensive end either. Duke failed to convert twice from the opponent’s one yard line in the first quarter alone, squandering key opportunities to go up multiple scores after Pittsburgh’s slow start. Running back Mataeo Durant looked to punch in a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, with Duke chewing nearly six minutes of clock and taking the ball right down the field. But the Blue Devils’ star did not find the end zone after he and Holmberg fumbled the ball on a handoff.

Pitt recovered the fumble, and marched down the field in under two minutes for the opening score. 

But the game did not always point to a Panther win, with Pittsburgh getting into trouble early in the first half at the hands of the swarming Duke defense. Following Durant’s second failed attempt to punch the ball into the endzone, the defensive line came out hot with just over two minutes to go in the first quarter. 

Shaka Heyward burst through the front six for the Panthers, and lowered his shoulder into Vincent Davis before he could break the plane of his own endzone, netting a safety for Duke and sending the Blue Devil faithful into a frenzy. 

Following the safety, Holmberg marched the offense down the field and delivered a strike over the middle to Jalon Calhoun for the 32-yard score, opening up a 12-7 lead that represented Duke’s largest of the day. They held on for a few minutes, but the air raid from Pickett and the Panthers proved simply too much for the hapless Blue Devil squad.

“We threw everything at him–one high, three high. And [Kenny Pickett]’s just a pretty good quarterback,” Jaylen Stinson said. “He can read everything.”

Leonard ended the game with 63 yards through the air on a 6-of-13 completion mark and a score, relying on the sure-footedness of Durant to carry the offensive efforts. With 13:41 remaining in the fourth frame, Leonard found Durant on a bubble screen and blockers paved the way for the five-yard score to narrow the lead to two scores. 

The backup played valiantly, but it wasn’t enough to fool the Panthers, who had done a fair job stopping the run to that point. Leonard called his own number a fair amount as well, with 11 attempts for 31 yards.

“Riley went out there today thrown in the heat of battle as a young freshman,” Durant said. “I was very proud of the way that he executed as he was in. For Riley it's just getting more and more experience every game and I feel like he has what it takes.”

Duke faces yet another tough ACC matchup next week, on the road in Blacksburg, Va., to face Virginia Tech.

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