PITTSBURGH—On Oct. 15, moments after his team’s dramatic loss to North Carolina, Duke head coach Mike Elko implored everybody to “stop questioning whether this team is going to respond.”
Respond the Blue Devils did. They won their next three games, achieving what once seemed impossible by becoming bowl eligible just one season after going 0-8 in ACC play. When Duke took to the field Saturday at Acrisure Stadium to battle the reigning conference champions, it was as a formidable foe, not as a bottom-feeder.
All the same, Duke’s mistakes piled up as the afternoon drew on, pushing the upstart visitors to the brink with a 28-14 deficit to overcome in the fourth quarter. There was little doubt that the Blue Devils would, as they have routinely done in their first season under Elko, respond. But it was too little, too late, as Pittsburgh held on 28-26 in the final minute and Duke’s golden opportunity to bolster its postseason résumé slipped through its fingers.
“Credit to our kids because they don't quit, and they don't stop and they're resilient as heck,” Elko said. “For as bad as we played up until the fumble they returned for a touchdown to go up [28-14], we put two 85-plus-yard drives together to give us a chance to end the game and go into overtime.”
That fumble return, surrendered by redshirt junior running back Jordan Waters deep in his own territory with 13:30 to play, doubled as the final foundation of the Panthers’ seemingly insurmountable lead and the turning point for the Blue Devils. From then on, Duke became a team clearly accustomed to staging dramatic comebacks. Before Saturday, it had already summoned furious rallies in its three prior losses to Kansas, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, falling just short each time.
And so the Duke comeback began, with sophomore receiver Jordan Moore shedding a busted coverage for a 49-yard touchdown and closing the gap to one score. Elko elected to keep the offense on the field for a failed two-point conversion, noting after the game that the Blue Devils were aiming to avoid overtime and win in regulation.
Regardless, Duke got its opportunity at the end of the game when sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard beat the odds with a last-gasp 19-yard touchdown to redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman on fourth-and-18 with just 47 seconds to play. But the two-point conversion, the final undoing of Pittsburgh’s lead, eluded the Blue Devils. The play called for a reverse-option to Moore, who was swallowed up in the backfield as the ball found his hands.
In a starring role Saturday, Moore showed off every bit of the dynamic nature that made him such a compelling candidate to start under center for the Blue Devils throughout fall camp. He seemed to summon highlights and crucial plays out of thin air against the Panthers, notching an unlikely one-handed grab in the first half and a crucial 22-yard reception on Duke’s penultimate drive as he posted career-highs in receptions (14), targets (20) and yards (199). But the do-it-all sophomore simply did not have an open look on the decisive two-point attempt as the play collapsed around him. "Looking back at the film," he said, "there's probably something I could have done to at least give it a chance."
“He's a kid who continues to work and continues to get better,” Elko said. “And as he gets more and more comfortable playing the wide receiver position, I think he's going to grow in his role and grow in his ability to impact football games. Obviously, he was a big part of it today and made a lot of plays for us.”
The bulk of the offensive burden fell on the shoulders of Moore and Leonard. While the temperature at Acrisure hovered around freezing from start to finish, Duke’s prolific running game never stuck, averaging 2.3 yards on 27 carries.
“Without us being able to get anything going in the run game, it just became such a struggle, and there was too much on Riley having to throw the ball in the wind as much as he had to,” Elko said. “ … We were behind the chains a lot, we were in bad down-and-distance situations a lot, and that just tees off into what Pitt wants to be about.”
For as close as Duke came to finishing off its rally, it likely would not have needed such heroics if not for a slew of mistakes beginning on the first drive of the game. The Blue Devils went three-and-out to start, and redshirt junior Porter Wilson’s 18-yard punt set the Panthers up with a short field to take a 3-0 lead. Later in the first half, senior receiver Jalon Calhoun misjudged a bouncing punt, leaving Pittsburgh to set up its offense at the 6-yard line for a one-play scoring drive.
What was likely the biggest swing occurred midway through the third, with the Blue Devil offense, on the fringes of field goal range at the 32-yard line, staying on the field for fourth-and-9. Leonard, under pressure head-on, sent a prayer toward the end zone for junior receiver Jontavis Robertson, who dropped what would have been the go-ahead score as his body crossed the goal line.
Together, Duke’s missteps were one too many and overshadowed a quietly brilliant defensive performance. Aside from a well-executed two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter, senior quarterback Kedon Slovis and the Panthers never put together a true touchdown drive.
Pittsburgh’s only second-half score came on defense after the Blue Devils intercepted Slovis twice in the third frame. When it mattered, Duke stood tall, forcing a late three-and-out that gave it one last chance to even the score.
“Like we’ve shown all year, we’re never out of the fight. … I just think we showed a lot of resiliency and just showed who we’ve been all year, ” junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said.
It is, of course, important to recognize that until very recently, this is a game that Duke could not have reasonably expected to win. Equally important is that the Blue Devils really could have made good on their golden opportunity, but the mistakes that might have blended in a season ago made all the difference.
The Blue Devils get another big opportunity Saturday at 3:30 p.m. when they host Wake Forest for Senior Day to close out the regular season.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.