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Film room: Duke football faces stern test against running back Abanikanda and Pittsburgh secondary

Jalon Calhoun was one of many Duke receivers who thrived against Virginia Tech.
Jalon Calhoun was one of many Duke receivers who thrived against Virginia Tech.

Duke hits the road this weekend to take on Pittsburgh at Acrisure Stadium Saturday afternoon. The Blue Zone is here to break down film on the Panthers prior to the noon matchup:

Duke has been on an impressive three-game winning streak since its loss against North Carolina in October. After the heartbreaker against the Tar Heels at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils have scored 45, 38 and 24 points in wins against Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech, respectively. 

This weekend, however, will mark the toughest challenge for Duke since the loss to North Carolina. Pittsburgh sits right behind the Blue Devils in the ACC standings, one game behind Duke for the second-place spot in the Coastal division. The Panthers are coming off of a big win against Virginia, and will be looking to carry that momentum into their home stadium Saturday.

Pittsburgh opened the game against Virginia with an impressive defensive feat, picking off the Cavaliers’ quarterback, Brennan Armstrong, on two consecutive plays and bringing both interceptions all the way back to the end zone. In just 16 seconds of game time, the Panthers had opened up a 14-0 lead. Essentially starting the game with a 14-point cushion is a huge benefit, and the Blue Devils will need to be wary of the Pittsburgh secondary to avoid a big hole that they have to dig themselves out of. 

Much of the Panthers’ attack has hinged on their run game. Pittsburgh has averaged an impressive 180.7 yards on the ground per game, and put up 189 yards against Virginia. While the Panthers didn’t put up any massive single runs against the Cavaliers, it was still a strong game for the running backs. It continued a season trend for the program, where Pittsburgh’s leading rusher, Israel Abanikanda, had himself a game against Virginia with 121 yards to follow up his school-record-breaking 320 yards in one game against Virginia Tech earlier in the year. 

On Duke’s side, it will need to do more of the same from last weekend’s game against Virginia Tech. After a slow start, the Blue Devils managed to turn the game around and take a 24-7 victory. A big part of that was sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard, who threw 10 passes for 15 or more yards against the Hokies, including this dime to receiver Jalon Calhoun. 

Duke will also look to open up the run game Saturday, something it also tried to do against the Hokies to limited success. The Blue Devils put up 165 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech—a solid tally, but below the team’s season average. Running back Jordan Waters played a big role in the ground game Saturday, including this impressive run deep into the Hokie secondary. 

Pittsburgh is a strong team, but a very beatable one. As long as Duke can develop its offense, control the ball and avoid unnecessary turnovers, it has a very good shot at winning this one. If the Blue Devils let the Panther defense run wild or give the run game too much space, this could be a tough loss that would pull Pittsburgh up even with Duke in the Coastal division standings. 


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