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Scouting the opponent: Duke football faces tall task against Pittsburgh's 'complete unit'

Who exactly is Duke up against in its Saturday trip to Pittsburgh?
Who exactly is Duke up against in its Saturday trip to Pittsburgh?

Last time out, Duke gritted out a 24-7 win against Virginia Tech at Wallace Wade Stadium. This places the Blue Devils at an outstanding 7-3 so far in head coach Mike Elko’s first season, and the team is now receiving national recognition for its efforts with 16 votes in Sunday's AP Poll. A win this week could very well vault Duke into one of the final rankings of the year, building strong momentum for the postseason. The Blue Devils' opponent is a step up, as the team will travel to Pennsylvania for a matchup with Pittsburgh. With the Panthers coming off of a dominating 37-7 win against Virginia, let’s take a look at what problems Pittsburgh could present for Duke.

If there is one word to describe Pittsburgh’s season so far, it would be tumultuous. The Panthers have had their share of marquee matchups, and they have held their own in all of them, with no glaring losses to date. In terms of shared opponents with Duke, the teams have fared exactly the same: Both programs handled Virginia Tech and Virginia while losing to North Carolina and Georgia Tech. An extra loss to Louisville has placed Pittsburgh just one game behind the Blue Devils in the ACC Coastal Division, so this game will have major implications for the final standings. The Panthers are not a team to overlook, as proven by their close 34-27 loss to No. 5 Tennessee in September.

Pittsburgh totes quite the potent offense, averaging 30 points per game, the 54th-best mark in the nation. Offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. has done an impressive job in his first year, especially considering the talent the Panthers lost in the offseason. Pittsburgh lost star quarterback Kenny Pickett to the first round of the NFL draft after he led them to the ACC title and star receiver Jordan Addison left for USC over the summer. Addison was last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner as the best receiver in the nation. To replace Pickett, the Panthers got their own USC transfer in Kedon Slovis. Slovis is not Pickett, but he has been solid, throwing for 1,945 yards in his first nine games.

Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi notoriously has a physical mentality, and the statistics back this up. The Panthers have one of the best rushing attacks in the conference, one that will certainly test a Duke defense that is 29th against the run this season. The workhorse of their ground game is junior running back Israel Abanikanda, who has taken his game to the next level in his third collegiate season. 

With two regular-season games to go, Abanikanda has run for 1,207 yards, the eighth-highest total in FBS. He has also reached paydirt 17 times on the ground, the second-best number in college football. To put it simply, Abanikanda is a game-wrecker, and he has proved this throughout the season. His best single-game performance came against Virginia Tech, when he carried the ball 36 times for an unreal 320 yards and six touchdowns. Needless to say, if Duke lets Abanikanda get rolling downhill, it could be in for a long day.

"I mean, they're extremely physical, they've got a very experienced big offensive line," Duke head coach Mike Elko said in Monday's media availability. "They're really good at running the football."

Pittsburgh’s physicality is evident on the defensive side of the football as well, as the unit allows only 309.8 yards per game, good for 15th-best in the country. The Panthers are especially good at stopping the run, as they come in 10th with their 97.7 rushing yards allowed per game. Unfortunately for Duke, running the football is its bread and butter, as it averages 203.8 yards per game on the ground. 

Something has to give, and Duke will hope that its increasingly healthy backfield, combined with one of the better running quarterbacks in the conference in Riley Leonard, will be enough to overpower the Pittsburgh defense. The Panthers are a bit weaker defending through the air, but they still allow a respectable 212.1 passing yards per game. This will be a challenge for a Duke receiving corps that is relying on unproven contributors to step up after an injury to senior receiver Eli Pancol. Both of Virginia’s first drives against the Panthers resulted in interceptions returned for touchdowns, so Duke must place an emphasis on protecting the football. 

"They got a really, really talented defensive line and front seven, and they're really good at stopping the run," Elko said. "And so I think they physically are the best, complete unit, both sides of the ball that we've seen this year."

There are two aspects of Pittsburgh’s defense that have the potential to derail the Blue Devils offensively: third-down defense and sacks. These two go hand in hand with one another, as the ability to get teams in tough third-down situations allows the Panther defensive line to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback. Pittsburgh only allows opposing offenses to convert 30.7% of their third downs, 15th-lowest in FBS. 

Pittsburgh also paces the country in sacks, with 37 on the season. The Panthers have three players with more than five sacks, with redshirt junior defensive tackle Calijah Kancey pacing the group with seven. The Pittsburgh defensive line is a daunting task for a Duke offensive line that has suffered multiple injuries this year, which could make it tough for Leonard to have time to convert third downs Saturday.

Overall, Pittsburgh is a solid team that presents an intriguing matchup for the Blue Devils in their second-to-last regular season game. Duke will have to be ready to bring the physicality for a cold noon start Saturday, but if it can continue to play the ground-and-pound style of football it has shown this season and can contain Abanikanda, Elko and company will have the chance to reach 8-3 and possibly enter the top 25. 


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