PITTSBURGH—Maybe it was the cold, or maybe it was the pressure. Regardless, Duke couldn’t complete a near-miraculous comeback in the Steel City.
On a frigid November day, Duke took on Pittsburgh at Acrisure Stadium in a grind of a football game. Both defenses stood especially tall, but their respective offenses failed to make use of the opportunities their teammates gave them. Ultimately, the Panthers were able to convert just a few more of their opportunities Saturday. Pittsburgh emerged victorious 28-26 despite a standout defensive effort from Duke after the Blue Devils’ offense fizzled out one too many times.
"Obviously very disappointed with how we played offensively through three quarters," head coach Mike Elko said after the game. "Defensively, I thought we battled for the better part of the game ... [and] did everything we could possibly do to keep us in that football game."
It looked like the Blue Devils (7-4, 4-3 in the ACC) were out of the game after squandering a potentially tying drive with 3:39 left in the game. But then Pittsburgh’s offense stalled out and once again lined up to punt. Freshman punter Caleb Junko fumbled the snap and was dragged down at his own 22-yard line, giving Duke one last chance.
But instead of a heroic comeback, the Blue Devils were assessed a holding penalty, forcing them into a third-and-18 from the 19-yard line. They couldn’t convert the third down, but that was no matter, as sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard shotgunned a 19-yard pass up the middle to redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman on the fourth for a touchdown. They still needed a two-point conversion to tie the game, though, and a trick play involving sophomore receiver and one-time starting quarterback contender Jordan Moore, failed. Moore was taken down in the backfield, and the ensuing onside kick attempt was recovered by the Panthers.
"We had a great, great game plan. We just had to execute it," Moore said. "The positive way of looking at it is the fact that we fought and came back and had a chance to tie it."
That was game, but really, the battle was lost much earlier. The Blue Devils forced Pittsburgh (7-4, 4-3) to punt at the start of the fourth quarter, but then failed to make any meaningful push down the field. Instead, redshirt junior Jordan Waters fumbled the ball, which was recovered for a touchdown by the Panthers’ Brandon Hill. Pittsburgh then padded its lead with a two-point conversion by way of an Israel Abanikanda rush.
The one saving grace for Duke’s offense was Moore. The sophomore had a career day as he led the Blue Devils’ receiving corps with 199 yards, including some of the day’s biggest plays. His most clutch came with under 10 to play. After some short plays got Duke across the 50-yard line, Moore broke free deep. Leonard spotted him wide open from 49 yards away, and Moore sauntered into the end zone for the Blue Devils’ longest passing touchdown of the season. However, a failed two-point conversion kept Duke trailing by eight at 28-20.
"With the wind conditions and how we were struggling to run the football, we didn't think overtime was going to be our best way to win that football game. And so that's the reason for [going for two there]," Elko said.
Facing a deficit left over from the first half and a charging group of Panthers, the Blue Devils squandered their first true headwind. Abanikanda was looking lethal after rushing 27 yards downfield and pushing his team into the red zone. However, senior quarterback Kedon Slovis’ day took a turn for the worse on a second-and-24 that was intercepted by graduate cornerback Datrone Young for 25 yards. Duke couldn’t get anything going, though, and was left to punt for the fifth time.
The drives were emblematic of the game the Blue Devils played, as an admirable defensive performance got lost in the fray of an uncharacteristically weak offensive day. In the Panthers’ ensuing drive, Duke forced a third-and-long. While Slovis was able to convert, Pittsburgh faced another first-and-long courtesy of a false start penalty. The Blue Devils then took away his pass options, leading to another interception, this time by Shaka Heyward for eight yards. Still, Duke once again floundered, with Leonard taking his first sack of the game before turning the ball over on downs two plays later after Jontavis Robertson dropped a 32-yard pass attempt in the end zone.
"You just gotta keep hunting, keep hunting, keep hunting. That's kind of sign of a great defense. So I mean, us on the sideline, it doesn't matter how many turnovers we get, we always want another one," redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said.
The Blue Devils had a slow offensive start, despite an early touchdown. Then, the group finally broke through midway through the second quarter. A strong drive featuring a 17-yard catch from Moore stalled out, resulting in a punt, but a roughing the kicker penalty gave the ball right back to the Blue Devils. Moore then snagged a 21-yarder from Leonard with one outstretched hand. The catch was originally ruled incomplete, but a review revealed that Moore had tapped his toe barely in-bounds. After, Leonard led the way for Duke as the group marched into the end zone to take a 14-13 lead.
Responding in the waning minutes of the half, the Panthers abandoned their run-first approach, as Slovis took advantage of a leaky Blue Devil secondary, pitching four passes of double-digit yardage en route to a touchdown. At the end of a stagnant first half in which he completed just 47% of his passes, Slovis redeemed himself to give his team a 20-14 lead going into the locker room
The Panthers made a push early after a quick three-and-out on Duke’s first possession. Still, the Blue Devil defense held strong to force Pittsburgh to settle for a 47-yard field goal. Duke would control the pace of play after that, as Waters routinely broke through the Panthers’ defense with relative ease for crucial yardage. Eventually, Leonard connected with senior receiver Jalon Calhoun in the end zone with a 28-yard touchdown pass.
However, the Blue Devils found themselves down 10-7 at the end of the first quarter—despite leading time of possession by more than two minutes—after Calhoun couldn’t corral a punt, and Pittsburgh got to start a drive six yards out from the goal line. Fittingly, Abanikanda punched it in for the Panthers with 1:25 left in the quarter, marking the first rushing touchdown Duke has given up since Oct. 15.
"We've got to get back for Wake next week, and send our seniors off the right way," Elko said. "[I'm] proud of our fight, but from an execution standpoint, we just didn't do enough to win a game on the road."
Next, the Blue Devils will take on Wake Forest at home the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.