PITTSBURGH — The trap was set.
Pitt, coming of a season — and possibly program-defining win at Clemson at week ago, returned to Heinz Field to face the 4-6 Duke Blue Devils on a blustery day in front of announced crowd of just over half capacity, it was a classic setup for a let-down game by the Panthers.
Instead, it was a rout. Pitt forced a fumble on the second snap of the game, scored 1:27 into the game and never looked back, sending the Blue Devils home with a 56-14 loss — their most lopsided in six years.
It was a bit of catharsis for the Panthers — and I’m sure the fans as well — as Pitt had played nearly nothing but close games in recent memory. The win was the largest margin of victory over a conference opponent since 2001.
“I’m really proud of how our players played this afternoon, coming off a big win a week ago,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “We had no hangover from that game. We were a little bit sluggish in the first half. We left some points out there and dropped some passes. I challenged our players int he second half to come out zero to zero and give us the best 30 minutes of football they had, and they really did.”
BIG DAY FOR JAMES
Running back James Conner led the charge for the Panthers with 101 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns.
With his second score, Conner broke the ACC’s all-time record for most career touchdowns with 53 and the record for the most career rushing touchdowns with 50. He went over 100 yards despite missing the entire second quarter with a right ankle injury and now has 945 yards on the season with two games to play.
Conner has set many Pitt records, but owning one for the entire conference is a special honor.
“I’ve had Pitt records, but to lead the whole conference, I think that’s the best one,” Conner said. “I’ll be forever grateful to the University of Pittsburgh for giving me a scholarship, believing in me and giving me the opportunity to do that.”
Conner had a ton of running room and increased his yards per carry in vintage Conner fashion, taking on defenders with physicality and stiff-arms.
“I got some hogs up front,” Conner said. “They did a great job moving people and it was easy for me, thanks to them.”
HENDERSON STRIKES TWICE
WR/KR Quadree Henderson also had a pair of touchdowns. The first came on a 52-yard jet sweep in the second quarter and the second came on a 64-yard punt return in the third quarter. Henderson’s big day was part of huge effort from the special teams units, which forced a fumble on a kick return and provided the Panthers with quality field positional all evening.
“We talk about that weekly. One of our keys to victory was to play great and superior special teams and I think we did that today. … We’ve had kickoff returns for touchdowns, but we were waiting for a punt return. We just had great blocking and obviously, Quadree can make things happen.”
“[Special teams coordinator Andre Powell] preaches that every yard matters,” Henderson said. “We take special teams very seriously. We have meetings every day about it.”
The Panthers used a plethora of defensive players all game, as they rotated nine defensive linemen, seven linebackers and eight defensive backs.
Converted tight end Devon Edwards played significant snaps at defensive tackle along with Shane Roy and Mike Herndon in relief of Shakir Soto and Jeremiah Taleni.
At linebacker, Saleem Brightwell started over Mike Caprara and saw a good amount of playing time, as did Bam Bradley and Quintin Wirginis, who had a big third-down sack.
Dane Jackson got the start at corner and about split time with senior Ryan Lewis, while Avonte Maddox played most of the game at the other side. As a reserve, freshman receiver Maurice French played over Damar Hamlin, who Narduzzi said was “banged up” after the game.
Narduzzi doesn’t usually comment on injuries, and it was a little surprising that he did so with Hamlin. My theory there is that they could be setting Hamlin up for a medical redshirt. If he has another minor injury or his injury from the summer has been re-aggravated, he’s only played about nine quarters of football this season. That should be below the threshold that would be required. Of course, all medical hardship waivers are individually approved by the NCAA.
Hamlin, Anthony McKee and Malik Henderson were the only healthy defensive scholarship players that didn’t see the field.
Offensively, the big win meant that Pitt was able to get a bunch of backups some work in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Manny Stocker led the team’s final touchdown drive behind the second-team offensive line of Aaron Reese, Alex Paulina, Conor Dintino, John Guy and Jaryd Jones-Smith. Ben DiNinucci made his Pitt debut by kneeling down three times to close the game.
BANGED UP BUNCH
Pitt escaped the game itself without any additional injuries, but they were playing without a ton of talented players, especially on defense.
Safety Jordan Whitehead, defensive tackles Tyrique Jarrett and Amir Watts, linebackers Chase Pine, Kaezon Pugh, Elias Reynolds and Elijah Zeise, cornerbacks Phillips Motley and Hamlin all didn’t dress.
It’s interesting that in the midst of the biggest injury crisis of the season, the Panthers put up their best defensive performance, holding Duke to one offensive touchdown.