DURHAM, N.C. — In a game where Pittsburgh had 610 yards after three quarters and led by 20 or more points twice (not to mention a 17-point lead with 8:30 to go), one might think that the Panthers won easily.
One would be incorrect.
Duke just couldn’t do quite enough, and ultimately the Blue Devils fell 58-55 with the most points in a loss in school history after a furious rally in the final 5:30 fell just short.
1. Not a banner day for defense
The teams combined for 16 touchdowns (14 offensive), 1,130 yards and 113 points, just six points away from being the highest-scoring game (combined) in ACC history. (Georgia Tech at UNC still holds that dubious honor at 118.)
Even though Pitt didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the final 18:18 of the game, it still finished with seven. As did Duke. In the other two ACC games this week (Clemson at N.C. State and UNC at Georgia Tech), there were 12 offensive touchdowns total. Combined. Two games, four teams. Twelve.
And many of the touchdowns were big plays. Four were 60 or more yards. But the real story was Duke’s front seven, a group that is Duke’s most experienced and arguably its deepest, being dominated up front by Pitt’s offensive front. The Panthers had 170 yards rushing on 24 attempts in the first half (7.1 per carry). It helped loosen up the back end of Duke’s defense as well on play-action passes.
“It was just hard-nosed, pound-the-ball football trying to run it down your throat. You’ve just got to man up,” Duke’s sixth-year senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “I think we stayed blocked a little too long, trying to maintain gap responsibility instead of just getting off and making plays.”
At the half, Pitt had 468 yards and they added 86 more on their first two drives of the third quarter to take a 44-28 lead. And so after Duke finally forced a Pitt three-and-out, Cutcliffe saw his offense prepared to go three-and-out immediately after. Things had been so bad defensively that he ran a fake punt on 4th and 1 from the Duke 34 (it failed).
“We didn’t need another three-and-out, so I decided to give us a four-and-out,” Cutcliffe said.
And Duke’s defense didn’t get any takeaways from a Pitt team that has shown to be prone to giveaways this season. Watching from the sideline, Cutcliffe — a quarterback guru — was reading Pitt quarterback Tom Savage’s eyes and felt he knew where the ball was going to go, if only his defensive backs could break on it a little quicker and see what he was seeing. But they didn’t.
“I thought we could have broke on a couple balls a little differently and maybe even had a couple of pick-sixes out of it,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m watching their quarterback. I’m reading his eyes. I’m old, I can’t quite break on it but if I could’ve, I believe I would’ve gotten it.”
2. Jamison Crowder is Duke’s best player by a wide margin
The junior wide receiver hit for the cycle, to use a baseball phrase, with a receiving touchdown, a rushing touchdown and a punt return for a touchdown. When Duke needed a touchdown, Crowder got it for them. He finished with seven catches for 141 yards and a score to go with two runs for 29 yards and a score, and three punt returns for 109 yards (and yes, another score).
Like Conner Vernon before him, Crowder — per Cutcliffe — is as hard a worker in practice as Duke has. “He performs at a high level out there because he’s the same every day at practice. That young man practices at this level every single rep,” Cutcliffe said.
“I’m really proud of the way he’s playing. He will bring more people with him. That’s the great part. He will. Those of us that are all bought in and moving forward, we need enough of us and it’ll bring all of us forward. Jamison is really helping a great deal in that regard.”
3. Brandon Connette is Duke football — at least, the Duke football without starting quarterback Anthony Boone — in a nutshell
The talented redshirt junior quarterback was used in spot duty throughout his career, and showed flashes of being a really good quarterback. He still is showing those flashes, but an every-down QB he does not seem to be. At least, not right now. He finished 21-of-32 for 323 yards and four touchdowns, adding 101 rushing yards and two more scores. But he also had four interceptions, and he started the game missing his first three passing attempts, two of which were intercepted.
Pitt scored just seven points off of those interceptions (Duke blocked a field goal on the first), but with a touchdown on its first drive, that still gave Pitt a 13-0 lead before Connette settled in to the game. But then there he was at the end, running or completing passes for four Duke touchdowns in the final 18:05.
“I think as a quarterback, once you feel that burn of what occurred — when you throw pick-sixes or you throw four (interceptions) in a game and you still compete at the level that he competed, that is a defining moment as a football player. His teammates should take notice,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s been about as tough as you can get two weeks in a row, but he got better and will continue to get better. I’m a believer in Brandon Connette. I will get in a foxhole with him any time.”
Cutcliffe clearly loves the person Connette is, as do his teammates. And it’s hard not to — he’s accountable, smart and can explain in detail any play that went wrong (or right) for him after each game. But the disparity between Connette at his best, hitting receivers in stride or juking defenders on the run, and at his worst, staring down a receiver for an easy interception, is striking.
The same goes for his teammates, too. The Duke defense in the fourth quarter was not the same unit that was getting blown off the ball in the first three quarters. Still, why was the disparity so wide?
“What did I lead into the (postgame press conference) with? Consistency. Brandon’s a good football player. He’s a good quarterback. But you’ve got to be a good quarterback, the magic is down after down after down. You’ve got to be a good left guard down after down after down.”
4. To continue to move forward as a program, this can’t be acceptable for Duke
A lot of the questions to the Duke players and Cutcliffe after the game were about how resilient this team is. That’s all well and good, and it’s very true that past Duke teams would have probably lost this game by a much larger margin.
But Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell was asked what “encouraging signs” the defense could take away in spite of the 58 points surrendered.
At first, he could only sigh in response. “I mean, we gave up 58 points,” he said, “It’s tough.”
The theme of resiliency kept popping back up, too. And there’s validity to that. It was one of the first things Cutcliffe said in his postgame comments. To be down or 20 or more points twice and come back and nearly win the game was impressive, and it does deserve praise. But he was quick to add the obvious caveats to that praise.
“I am happy with the resiliency, and I’m proud of the resiliency. We also would not have been able to come back if we don’t have good players,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got people who can make plays on both sides of the ball, and we’ve just got to find all of the ways to make that occur on a consistent basis. … (The lack of consistency is) a little bit of a mystery for me. That’s not how we practice.”
Duke has come far enough as a program and has enough good players that he expects more. And he wants others to expect more, too. He’s not satisfied with a moral victory. Especially since with the rest of Duke’s schedule, there aren’t a lot of certain real-life victories left.
If Duke wants to get back to its second consecutive bowl game, the Blue Devils have to execute better. Which is what was puzzling for Cutcliffe — his team came almost all the way back, but if it hadn’t played that badly to begin with, it wouldn’t have had to come back.
He still has faith in this group, though.
“This team is not about to go away. We’ve got too many things to build on, and unfortunately too many things to correct, but they’re correctable and we can approach things that way.”