Extra point: Offensive improvements, solid defense power Duke football past Pittsburgh

<p>Jalon Calhoun scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to propel Duke football to a win against Pittsburgh.</p>

Jalon Calhoun scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to propel Duke football to a win against Pittsburgh.

In its regular-season finale, Duke football earned a 30-19 victory against Pittsburgh. The Blue Zone is here to break down the Blue Devils’ win on Senior Day with three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead:

Three key takeaways

1. Improving offense

After a season which saw Duke’s offense flourish early with the play of star quarterback Riley Leonard, and then struggle as freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis adapted to his new role, the Blue Devils finished the season with a solid 30-19 win against the Panthers. Although the offense struggled initially, marked by Loftis’s interception, it managed to bounce back to outscore Pittsburgh 20-9 in the second half. Compared to the Gaffney, S.C., native’s first game and win against Wake Forest, where he threw an underwhelming 86 passing yards with a 7-for-19 completion rate, the freshman showed his improvement in Duke’s final game of the season, throwing 248 passing yards on a 20-of-37 completion rate. His performance was marked by a late-game toss to Jordan Waters during the fourth quarter, where he displayed quick instincts in a tight situation. Loftis’s outing was bolstered by the play of wide receivers Jordan Moore and Jalon Calhoun, who ended with 106 and 71 receiving yards, respectively. Although the Blue Devils’ running game lacked efficiency, the fact that Loftis managed to connect plenty of times with Calhoun and Moore points to a promising future for an offense without Riley Leonard. 

2. Memorable home record

Duke also finished the season with a 7-5 record, which is much-improved compared to the pre-Elko era. Within these seven wins, the Blue Devils accumulated six victories at home, setting the program record for most home wins in a season. The only loss for Duke this year in Durham came against then-No. 11 Notre Dame after the Blue Devils had been leading for the majority of the fourth quarter. Not only does this say much about the home crowd and support this season but also about the team under head coach Mike Elko. After having led Duke to a highly-respected 9-4 record during the 2022 campaign, he once again demonstrated his capacities by taking the Blue Devils all the way to the national rankings and dominating almost every team they played at home.

3. Enduring defense

After struggling against a Virginia offense led by graduate wide receiver Malik Washington, the Duke defense once again demonstrated why it is one of the best in the ACC. The Blue Devils were most successful against the Panthers' rushing game, leading to 47 yards lost for Pittsburgh’s offense. Notably, linebacker Nick Morris Jr. and defensive end R.J. Oben had huge games for the Duke defense. While Morris Jr. compiled a career-high 12 tackles, Oben had a team-leading 2.5 tackles for loss. Even though it was the last contest of the season, the Blue Devil defense displayed yet another solid performance.

Three key stats

1. 248 passing yards 

Although 248 yards might not seem like a lot for other top-caliber college quarterbacks, Loftis’s performance in this game must be noted. The freshman has improved gradually ever since stepping into the starting role after Leonard’s injury. His outing against the Panthers comes after passing for 278 yards against Virginia and 189 yards against North Carolina. In an offense that relied on rushing yards either from Leonard or the running backs early in the season, seeing passing potential from a freshman quarterback like Loftis could be indicative of what’s to come for Duke offensively. 

2. 71 receiving yards 

Redshirt senior Calhoun accumulated a respectable 71 receiving yards, followed by a touchdown late in the third quarter. In doing so, the Greenville, S.C., native managed to surpass 3,000 receiving yards in his career. Calhoun has had yet another successful season in 2023, with 642 receiving yards in total for the Blue Devils.

3. 1.3-yard rushing average for Pittsburgh 

The Duke defense had a good all-around game but made most of its impact against the rush. It had a season-high 10.0 tackles for loss while holding Pittsburgh to just 43 rushing yards. The Blue Devil defense also held two of the Panthers’ running backs to an average rushing gain of less than four yards. This defensive effort was part of the reason why Duke managed to sustain the score late in the fourth quarter. As a rush-heavy team, the Pittsburgh offense found itself struggling against the Blue Devils’ defense throughout the game. 

Looking ahead

After concluding the 2023 regular season, Duke will now set its sights on a bowl game to end the year on a high note. Feeding off this season’s performance, the Blue Devils will look to gain momentum prior to the next campaign to hopefully gain a spot in the ACC Championship.


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