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5 things to know before Duke football heads to Pittsburgh for its penultimate regular-season game

Duke will need to force turnovers to stifle a lethal Panther offense.
Duke will need to force turnovers to stifle a lethal Panther offense.

For both Duke and Pittsburgh, the 2022 season has defied expectations—but in opposite ways.

The bar for the first season of the Elko Era was set low by fans and analysts alike after a dismal 2021 season, but Duke has far and away surpassed all predictions. Duke smashed Vegas’ over/under for season wins by Week Five, then kept rolling. After a slow start last weekend against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils’ defense stood tall and the offense came alive, allowing them to pull away for a comfortable 24-7 victory.  

Meanwhile, after a magical 2021 run, Pittsburgh entered 2022 with high hopes, ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP Poll. Its ranking seemed warranted early on, as the Panthers bested West Virginia in the highly entertaining Backyard Brawl and lost a tight contest in overtime against Tennessee. However, it’s been a disappointing year for the defending ACC champions. The Panthers’ prowess began to crumble in the thick of their schedule, as they dropped winnable games to ACC bottom-dwellers Louisville and Georgia Tech.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh secured its second bowl appearance in a row after trouncing Virginia 37-7 on the road last weekend. The Panthers will be a tough competitor for Duke. With both teams hungry to put the final stamp on their resumes for bowl season, here are five things to know as the Blue Devils travel to the Steel City Saturday.

Defending the star running back

Pittsburgh running back Israel Abanikanda is the best running back in the ACC, and one of the best in all of college football. The junior from Brooklyn, N.Y., has torn apart defenses this year, averaging 134.1 yards per game and 1,207 rushing yards in total, the most in the conference and eighth most in the nation. He has also scored a whopping 17 rushing touchdowns, good for first in the ACC and tied for second in the nation with Michigan’s Blake Corum.

The highlight of his resume thus far was when he rushed for 320 yards against Virginia Tech, breaking Tony Dorsett’s program record for yards in a game. He also cashed in for six touchdowns, all while averaging 8.9 yards per carry. The combination of his ability to break tackles and create separation makes him almost impossible to stop.

Duke’s 29th-ranked run defense has had success this year, only allowing 122.7 yards per game on the ground. The onus falls on the Blue Devils front seven, especially senior linebacker Shaka Heyward, to prevent Abanikanda from flattening Duke. 

Secondary step up

Pittsburgh wide receiver Jared Wayne is the other star on the Panthers offense. The senior has amassed 714 yards in the air, averaging 17.9 yards per catch, and leads the team in yards and is second in receptions. These numbers are even more impressive considering Pittsburgh ranks in the top 50 nationally in team rushing attempts. 

Wayne excels against struggling secondaries. In the Panthers’ game against North Carolina, he thrived, hauling in seven catches for a career-best 161 yards. The Duke secondary has floundered the last few weeks, either with blown coverages or pass interference penalties. 

“It is an evolving process,” head coach Mike Elko acknowledged of the secondary’s struggles in his media availability Monday. “We are still completely a work in progress as a program and as a defense.”

As Duke tries to stop the ground-and-pound attack of Pittsburgh, it cannot lose sight of the threat that Wayne poses over the top.

Calhoun to the moon

On the flip side, the Blue Devils have their own star receiver that possesses the talent to lead them to victory. Senior Jalon Calhoun has emerged as the Blue Devils’ premier receiving threat, and his ability to beat corners in single coverage has propelled him to lead the team in both receptions with 41 and receiving yards with 585. 

After losing senior Eli Pancol to a season-ending injury, Duke needed Calhoun to step up. Last weekend he showed out against Virginia Tech, hauling in five catches for 94 yards. He displayed his quickness and football IQ best when in the first quarter, he beat press coverage and found a soft spot in the Virginia Tech zone 30 yards downfield for an easy pitch-and-catch.

The Pittsburgh secondary poses a much tougher matchup. Led by senior cornerback AJ Woods, Pittsburgh’s defense only allows 212.1 passing yards per game. Calhoun must continue his excellent play of late to allow the Duke offense to perform to the best of its ability.

Edge threat extraordinaire Johnson

Duke cornerback Brandon Johnson burst onto the scene after his mind-boggling performance against Miami, where he recorded eight solo tackles, two sacks, one fumble recovery and one interception returned for a touchdown. Awarded the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance, the Blue Devils had high hopes he would capitalize on his individual momentum.

After a quieter week against Boston College, Johnson registered another fantastic performance last weekend against Virginia Tech. The sophomore from Newton, N.C., had six tackles, four of which were solo efforts, including two sacks. In his availability, Elko named Johnson the team's defensive player of the week.

“He is impacting games every single week now,” Elko said. “He is a major force for us in the stats sheet and in the production standpoint."

As a dual threat in the pass rush and in coverage, Johnson can slow Pittsburgh’s offense with another great effort. 

The turnover battle

All year long, a point of emphasis for Elko and the Blue Devils has been winning the turnover battle. After eight forced turnovers against Miami propelled Duke to one of the best turnover margins in college football, the last two games have been more of an uphill battle. In Boston, the Blue Devils failed to force a turnover against an Eagles squad that averages 0.8 fumbles and 1.1 interceptions per game. Last weekend, quarterback Riley Leonard threw a red-zone interception on a misread. 

For the Blue Devils to beat Pittsburgh, they must avoid sloppy errors and find a way to force the Panthers into making mistakes.

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