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X-Factor: Calhoun must be a defensive magnet for Duke football to defeat Pittsburgh's tough defense

Jalon Calhoun had a career-best 108 receiving yards against Northwestern early in the season.
Jalon Calhoun had a career-best 108 receiving yards against Northwestern early in the season.

Following a victory against Virginia Tech at home Saturday, Duke travels to Pittsburgh for its final away game of the year. Prior to the Saturday afternoon showdown, the Blue Zone analyzes one player from each team that may swing the outcome of the game:

Duke: Jalon Calhoun

After 10 hard-fought games, it might come as a surprise that Duke’s offense may face its toughest matchup yet against Pittsburgh. The Panthers rank 24th out of 131 FBS teams in defensive efficiency. With the Panthers allowing an ACC-best 3.2 yards per carry against opposing runners, it may be time for the Blue Devils to center their efforts on passing. Naturally, Duke's offense must be oriented on its top wide receiver, senior Jalon Calhoun, for the Blue Devils to capture their eighth win this year.

Calhoun has been as streaky as any wideout in college football. He secured six catches for a career-best 108-yard performance early in the season against Northwestern, yet had no catches in games against North Carolina A&T and Georgia Tech. In Duke's last four games, Calhoun has averaged 57.3 receiving yards, a fine mark for a run-oriented team.

In Saturday’s contest, Calhoun will need to generate the big plays head coach Mike Elko wants to see by making himself open on downfield routes early on. If Calhoun proves to be a magnet for defensive attention early on, he can take pressure away from wideouts Jontavis Robertson and Jordan Moore, and allow for a more diversified passing game.

Pittsburgh: Kedon Slovis

Once a Heisman hopeful at USC, Kedon Slovis has had a modest 2022 season in his first year at Pittsburgh. Through nine games, he has completed just 59.2% of his passes for six touchdowns and six interceptions, with a career-low QBR of 47.1. In Pittsburgh's last five contests, Slovis has thrown for just a single score while adding four turnovers. The signal-caller also struggles as a runner, as he has lost an average of three yards per rush attempt.

Slovis’ limitations this year have been apparent and have limited the Panthers’ ability to diversify their offense. Yet, Pittsburgh keeps winning. The team clinched bowl eligibility with a win last Saturday in which the defense and star running back Israel Abanikanda shouldered most of the workload; Slovis only attempted 24 passes during the game. Slovis’ role of playing second fiddle to a strong ground game has helped Pittsburgh earn a 6-4 record on the year with favored odds against the Blue Devils heading into Saturday’s matchup.

However, many signs point to Slovis needing to take on a larger role on offense against Duke. For one, several of Duke’s games have involved the Blue Devils taking a lead early on, forcing opponents to switch to a pass-heavy script. Additionally, the Blue Devils have allowed just 3.7 yards per carry and six rushing touchdowns; the latter representing the best defensive mark in the ACC. On the other hand, Duke’s pass defense has proven itself a severe vulnerability, as it has conceded strong showings to opposing signal-callers in games against Kansas, North Carolina and Boston College. These factors allow for a potential breakout showing for Slovis; after all, every game is different, and this veteran quarterback has an arsenal of standout games in his career that he can add to with a premier performance Saturday.


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