It is said that the tryptophan in turkey creates the notorious post-Thanksgiving lethargy, and it seemed like Duke still might have had some in its system Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh. However, the Blue Devils woke up in the second half for 20 points, securing a 30-19 win on Senior Day.
In its final regular season game of the year, Duke secured its second-straight winning season and its first undefeated home conference record since 1989, with freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis throwing for 248 yards and junior receiver Jordan Moore totaling eight receptions for 106 yards. The defense also showed up, turning the Panthers over once and totaling four sacks.
“We were able to go into the half in the same spot we were last week, and [I] really challenged them at halftime to come out of the locker room with a much different mindset — to play the third quarter the way we know how to play football,” head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “And we did. I thought we played a much better third quarter this week. I thought between Jordan Moore and Jalon Calhoun making some big one on one plays, we were able to either extend drives or for touchdowns.”
After Pittsburgh was able to cut the lead to eight with 5:17 to go in the fourth quarter, Loftis and the Blue Devils (7-5, 4-4 in the ACC) got the ball with the chance to put the game away. On a third-and-11, Loftis found his favorite target in Moore for a 22-yard reception. A roughing the passer call added an extra 15 yards and a 48-yard boot from sophomore kicker Todd Pelino sealed the win.
“I told [offensive coordinator] Kevin [Johns] on the third down at the end of the game, ‘I don't care what play we call just throw it up Jordan and let him go make a play,’” Elko said.
Despite scoring 10 points in the first half, Duke did not put together a drive longer than 30 yards until the second. The Blue Devils drove 67 yards for three points on their first series, but they truly broke out on the following drive.
First, graduate running back Jordan Waters caught a screen pass and found a hole, tearing away for a 46-yard gain. Only a play later, freshman quarterback Grayson Loftis found redshirt senior Jalon Calhoun motioning to the outside, and the receiver waltzed into the end zone untouched for a 15-yard score.
The big plays helped to ignite the defense, who nearly scored six points of its own. Senior defensive tackle Aeneas Peebles stripped the ball from redshirt sophomore quarterback Nate Yarnell’s hands, but the Panthers jumped on it on the 2-yard line.
On the ensuing Duke drive, Calhoun was not finished, and this time he ran through contact for a big gain. On a play that seemed to be about a five-yard gain, Calhoun shook off a defender and stretched it into 32 yards. The reception also gave the Greenville, S.C., native 3,000 career receiving yards — just the fourth-ever Blue Devil to reach that mark.
“Honestly, it’ll all hit me later, I'm trying to soak it in,” Calhoun said. “I didn't really know I had 3,000 before my teammates started running up to me in the locker room. I appreciate it, it speaks on the volumes my hard work, [and] my teammates really pushed me every day.”
Seven plays later, junior running back Jaquez Moore pushed his way into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown.
Pittsburgh (3-9, 2-6) drove down the field searching for a response, but back-to-back penalties inside the 15-yard line forced a third-and-long for Yarnell. He looked for freshman Kenny Johnson, but the receiver ran into the referee and could not complete his route. As a result, graduate safety Jeremiah Lewis played center field and caught the fly ball for an interception.
However, after a quick punt from the Blue Devils, the Panthers were able to bring the game back within reach just a few minutes later. Yarnell bought time for senior receiver Bub Means to find an empty spot in the end zone, and they connected for a 14-yard score. Pittsburgh elected to go for a two-point conversion, but Yarnell’s pass went through two receivers’ hands.
The Blue Devils came out of the gates firing in the second half, with Loftis dropping the ball into Jordan Moore’s hands for a 31-yard reception on the third play from scrimmage. Loftis then looked for Calhoun in the end zone, and the fifth-year receiver drew a pass interference call. The Gaffney, S.C., native took two more shots to the end zone but could not find an opening, and Duke settled for a 25-yard field goal.
Yarnell swung back with some impressive throws of his own, notching three completions for 50 yards on his first series of the second period. Pittsburgh’s drive stalled outside the redzone, though, and redshirt junior Ben Sauls knocked through a 47-yard field goal.
After a sleepy first quarter, the Panthers were the first to find the end zone in the second, engineering a 15-play, 93-yard drive that culminated in a 21-yard touchdown reception from senior tight end Karter Johnson.
Duke, on the other hand, struggled early to string together enough positive play to mount a significant drive.
But the offense got a helping hand from special teams. A 59-yard leg from graduate punter and Ray Guy Award Semifinalist Porter Wilson put the Panthers on their own 4-yard line, and an ensuing 15-yard punt from Pittsburgh’s Caleb Junko only moved it back to the 25.
A string of positive runs put the Blue Devils in position, and Loftis found Jordan Moore for a 10-yard touchdown reception with just over a minute left in the half.
The first quarter saw both teams’ drives fizzle out before the end zone, as Duke settled for a 47-yard field goal from Pelino to open the day’s scoring, and the Panthers responded with a 35-yard kick of their own.
Elko and the Blue Devils have qualified for their second-straight bowl game, finishing with a 7-5 record. The team now awaits its bowl placement, where it will look to build off Saturday’s victory.
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Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.