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

Jordan Moore (8) and Maurice McIntyre celebrate the Blue Devils' first touchdown against Pittsburgh
Jordan Moore (8) and Maurice McIntyre celebrate the Blue Devils' first touchdown against Pittsburgh

Duke welcomed Pittsburgh for its final home clash of the season at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday afternoon, looking to wave its seniors goodbye on a triumphant note. With 30 minutes behind them, the Blue Devils are tied with the Panthers 10-10:

Five observations

Farewell seniors: As is custom for teams on their last home game of the regular season, Duke honored its graduating class prior to Saturday’s contest against Pittsburgh. The program recognized 39 Blue Devils who will likely be playing their last game at Wallace Wade Stadium, with captains DeWayne Carter, Ja’Mion Franklin and Jacob Monk chief among them. Notable omissions from the ceremony were linebacker Dorian Mausi, defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles and offensive lineman Maurice McIntyre, hinting that they may return to Durham in 2024. 

Sustained drive: Duke has not outgained an opponent since its Sept. 23 game against UConn, and this is largely because opponents have been able to sustain drives, even if Duke has been excellent at holding opponents once they cross into Blue Devil territory. This same struggle was on display in the first half Saturday, as Pittsburgh put together multiple long drives that both allowed it to score while simultaneously keeping the ball out of freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis’s hands. 

Out of their first three drives, the Panthers ran 13 or more plays on two of them, with the first 60-yard series leading to a field goal and the next 15-play drive resulting in the first touchdown of the game. At halftime, Pittsburgh leads the time of possession battle 18:15 to 11:45. 

Flags flying: The refs came ready to do their job from the jump on Saturday, as both teams were flagged multiple times early. On the first punt for Pittsburgh, Duke committed two holding penalties that were offset by a targeting call on the Panthers, forcing the visitors to punt again. On Duke’s opening drive, a third-and-8 inside the 40-yard line was turned into a challenging third-and-18 after senior left tackle Graham Barton was whistled for holding, practically killing the drive’s momentum. 

Outside run troubles: Against the Cavaliers, Duke struggled to stop the stretch run concept, with head coach Mike Elko specifically mentioning an inability to fit the gaps properly on defense in his postgame press conference. It’s obvious Pittsburgh looked over the film from last week’s contest in Charlottesville, Va., as the Panthers also found success running wider during the early stages of the game, culminating in 53 total rushing yards by the end of the half.

Special teams excellence: All year Duke has been solid on special teams, as the specialist trio of Todd Pelino, Charlie Ham and Porter Wilson have all excelled at times. It is no different so far Saturday. Pelino nailed a 47-yard try in the first quarter to open up the game’s scoring, making him 13-for-18 on the season. Meanwhile, Wilson continues to prove why he was named a Ray Guy Award Semifinalist, as the graduate student’s first action of the game was a booming punt, sailing 59 yards over the head of Pittsburgh returner M.J. Devonshire and forcing him to mishandle the punt, allowing Duke to pin the opposition on its own 7-yard line after a penalty. Wilson refused to be outdone on his next punt, skying one that sat right above the goal line, allowing Duke’s gunners to knock the ball back in play and down it, forcing Pittsburgh to start at its own 4-yard line.

By the numbers

Third-down offense: When a team does not win the time of possession battle, every play becomes that much more important, especially in third-down situations. Through the first two quarters, Duke was less than ideal in this area, going 3-of-8 on these pivotal plays. However, the Blue Devils were able to convert two of these attempts on their last drive of the half, allowing them to grab a touchdown to keep the game close going into the locker room. 

Low rushing yards: All season, no matter who is under center, Duke has shown a willingness to pound the rock, constantly leaning on its running back stable of Jaquez Moore, Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters to produce for the offense. This strategy has paid dividends often for the Blue Devils, as Elko’s team ranked sixth in the ACC in rushing yards per game with 178. However, this same success was nowhere to be found early against Pittsburgh, as the Panthers consistently found ways to stifle the rushing attack, limiting Duke to just seven yards on the ground in the first quarter, and 25 by the end of the second.

Pittsburgh completion percentage: Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nate Yarnell may have been third on the depth chart at quarterback for head coach Pat Narduzzi to begin the season, but you would not have been able to tell it in the first half Saturday. Yarnell was surgical through his first three drives, going 9-for-11 for 84 yards, including a perfect 7-for-7 mark on the Panthers’ touchdown drive. The signal caller finished the half 11-for-13 for 91 yards. 

A play that mattered

After the long punt from Wilson coupled with the holding penalty, it seemed as if Pittsburgh would have little chance of scoring a touchdown after beginning inside its own 10-yard line. However, Yarnell had other plans, orchestrating a 15-play drive that marched his team down to the Duke 21-yard line. But the Austin, Texas, native was not done just yet, rolling out to his right and firing one to tight end Karter Johnson, who plowed his way into the end zone to cap off a 93-yard drive and give the visiting team a 10-3 lead. 


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