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5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against Pittsburgh

<p>The Blue Devils and Panthers battled it out in a tough first half, swapping punts with the occasional scoring drive.&nbsp;</p>

The Blue Devils and Panthers battled it out in a tough first half, swapping punts with the occasional scoring drive. 

PITTSBURGH—It has been a back-and-forth half of football at Acrisure Stadium, where the Blue Devils and Panthers are locked in a sub-freezing meeting between ACC foes. Halfway through, Pittsburgh leads 20-14.

Five observations:

Winter is here: “If you want to play championship football in November,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said Monday, “this is what it looks like.” The first-year head coach was referring to the frigid forecast for Saturday’s game, and the environment at Acrisure seems to have only reaffirmed his expectations with bright skies and a local temperature of 29 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff. The conditions have made little difference to the play-calling early, with both sides employing a fairly standard mix of pass and run leading into the break, albeit with varying success.

On the ground: Star Pittsburgh running back Israel Abanikanda is the headliner on the ground between these two teams, but both the Blue Devils and Panthers sport a top-five ACC rushing offense and defense. Still, the ACC’s leading rusher carried a heavy burden while living up to his billing early, accounting for 67 first-quarter yards; his team finished the opening 15 minutes with 61 total yards. So far, he is winning the battle in the trenches with 78 total yards on 13 touches, but chances are that senior quarterback Kedon Slovis and the Pittsburgh offense will have to find a new dimension to pull away from the visitors.

Calhoun’s mixed bag: Building off of a stellar five-catch, 94-yard outing against Virginia Tech, Jalon Calhoun was again sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard’s go-to option in the first two frames Saturday. The senior receiver led off the fireworks with the game’s first touchdown, gaining a step on his defender down the left sideline and hauling in a 28-yarder from Leonard to give Duke a 7-3 lead. His first half did, however, include a giveaway on Pittsburgh’s next punt, setting up the Panthers to take back the lead on a six-yard, one-play scoring drive.

Moore highlights: Jordan Moore’s one-handed, highlight-reel grab along the sideline was more than memorable, but it served only as the crown jewel of an all-around first half from the versatile quarterback-turned-receiver. The sophomore was the recipient of Leonard’s first two targets and provided catches of 21 and 17 yards to fuel Duke’s late go-ahead scoring drive. He leads the Blue Devils in receptions (five) and receiving yards (45) heading into the locker room.

Under pressure: Duke’s offensive line has kept Leonard clean all season long, and Saturday has been no different—the sophomore passer is yet to take a sack. But Pittsburgh’s strong pass rush only grew stronger as the half went on, building up to consistent pressure and totaling six hurries. So far, Leonard has used his mobility to his advantage, fending off oncoming defenders but without much downfield success out of the pocket.

By the numbers:

35 days: The last time Duke gave up a rushing touchdown, it was in the middle of a heated battle against North Carolina for the Victory Bell. That was Oct. 15, but Abanikanda broke that streak with his first-quarter plunge.

2-of-7 on third down: For all of Duke’s defensive improvement in its first season under Elko and defensive coordinator Robb Smith, the Blue Devils have allowed a conference-worst 42.2% third-down conversion rate through 10 games. That changed in a big way Saturday, as Duke stood tall on Pittsburgh’s first five third downs and managed to get off of the field with great efficiency. Still, Duke allowed the Panthers to strike on third-and-9 for the late score and the halftime lead.

8-of-17 passing: Abanikanda’s first-half success becomes even more notable when taking into account Slovis’ inefficient passing. The USC transfer has connected on just eight passes but has found success downfield, tallying 127 yards in the air thanks to a series of big plays. His touchdown pass to senior receiver Jared Wayne with 10 seconds in the half put Pittsburgh up at the last moment.

A play that mattered:

With Pittsburgh leading 3-0 and facing third-and-5 at its own 30-yard line, Slovis dropped back to pass before junior defensive end Ryan Smith came roaring off the edge for Duke, collecting his first-career sack and halting the game’s first true offensive momentum in its tracks. One play later, freshman cornerback Chandler Rivers also got into the backfield to partially block the punt, setting the Blue Devils up at Pittsburgh’s 42-yard line. It took just five plays from there for Leonard and Calhoun to connect for the score, and while it was the offense that finished the job, Duke’s defense and special teams made it a possibility.


Jonathan Levitan | Sports Editor

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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