DURHAM, N.C. — The last time Pitt and Duke met on a football field, the final stats were eye-popping as the two sides combined for 99 points and more than 1,200 yards in Pittsburgh in 2018.
This time around, on Saturday night in Wallace Wade Stadium, the stats weren’t exactly something to brag about, but they explained the weirdness of an ACC Coastal clash. Between both teams there were 10 turnovers, 19 penalties called for 205 yards, an average of 4.65 yards per-pass on a combined 93 attempts and a third-down conversion rate of 40 percent.
On top of all of that, the winning team had a 23-point lead in the third quarter, totally blew it to trail by four points with 90 seconds to play, and then had their most efficient offensive drive of the game to win by three.
Indeed, Pitt’s 33-30 road victory over Duke was strange, improbable and – at times – just plain silly.
Some might say that the Panthers tried to shoot themselves in the foot, but that would be a massive understatement. Pat Narduzzi’s team attempted to set its legs ablaze and saw them off with a pocket knife. Luckily, Pitt failed. But for Pitt fans, much of this game – especially when the offense was on the field, and especially in the third and fourth quarters – was excruciating, frustrating and ridiculous.
But, hey, a win is a win.
“It’s an incredible win for our football team,” Narduzzi said. “Week by week our kids continue to show how much character they have as a football team in an ugly game… There have been a lot of weird ones. Last week was weird, but again, it just shows character.”
With the victory, Narduzzi is now 5-0 all-time against the Blue Devils. It was also the third straight game that Pitt won where they trailed at some point during the fourth quarter.
Carter saves the day
Pitt’s offense struggled for most of the day. Any long drives they had ended in field goals or turnovers, while their touchdowns were set-up by plays made by the defense or special teams.
So, when Duke took a four-point lead with 90 seconds to go, few expected Pitt to cover 82 yards of turf for the go-ahead touchdown. But with their backs against the wall, the Panthers got it done.
Kenny Pickett targeted V’Lique Carter on the first play of the drive. It was incomplete, but a pass interference call against Duke moved the sticks anyway. Pickett then found Taysir Mack for a 12 yard gain, then found Aaron Matthews for a 23 yard pick-up.
An illegal touching penalty and a short completion set up a 3rd-and-four situation for Pitt with the clock dwindling. Carter wheeled out of the backfield and appeared open in the middle of the field. With a defender charging at him, Pickett fired the pass and his running back hauled it in.
“Unfortunately, we called a man blitz and they had the right play there at the end,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Between Carter and the end-zone was just one defender, who dove at his feet to try to stop him. But Carter just spun around him and then outraced another defender for the game-winning score.
“You know, V’Lique’s a playmaker and I guess he does (like playing against Duke),” Narduzzi said.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) October 6, 2019
Last season, Carter scored twice against Duke on seven carries for 137 yards. On Saturday, he tallied 54 yards of total offense, but notched the biggest touchdown of the night.
After scoring, Carter said he wanted to pull a Stefon Diggs – like when the Minnesota Vikings receiver pulled his helmet off and tossed into the air after a walk-off touchdown over the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs. But, considering how many times the refs had hurled yellow flags from their hip Saturday, Carter didn’t think that would be a good idea.
“I couldn’t do that. The refs were calling everything,” Carter said. “I was the first read and I seen that (Duke) did a zero blitz, so, I’m like, ‘Man. I’m going to get this.’ … I seen him coming, just hit the spin move and ran for my life.”
Good and bad with Paris Ford
It would be easy to make the argument that Pitt would not have beaten Duke without the stellar play of Paris Ford at safety. However, the game might have not been as close had he not made two costly errors.
Ford was outstanding at the start of the game and helped set the tone for the defense. The red-shirt sophomore picked off Duke quarterback Quentin Harris on the Blue Devils’ third drive of the game and housed it for a touchdown. On Duke’s next drive, Ford came up with another interception, setting up a Pitt field goal.
The interceptions were the first of the Steel Valley product’s collegiate career. He became the first Panther with a pick-six since Dane Jackson ran one back against Syracuse in 2016, and became the first Panther with multiple interceptions in a single game since Ray Vinopal had two against Notre Dame in 2013. Ford also notched a career-high 12 tackles.
“He’s important to us every game,” Jackson said of Ford. “He plays with a lot of passion, gives us energy out on that field and we trust him enough to make those plays.”
Ford’s first mistake came near the end of the third quarter, when he botched a punt return. His fumble put Duke in the red-zone and set up their first touchdown on the night, kick-starting their comeback. Narduzzi said after the game that it was his decision to plug Ford in on the punt return, because while Maurice Ffrench had a 50-yard return at the end of the second quarter, he was worried about Ffrench’s ball security.
“Put the blame on me. I have a lot of faith in Paris and I thought he made some plays,” Narduzzi said. “I made that decision and it backfired on us. But you know what? Our kids hung tight and we got the W. That’s really all that matters.”
Then, with 3:18 left and Duke driving, Ford lowered his shoulder while attempting to tackle Blue Devils’ receiver Scott Bracey. But Bracey lowered his head at the same time, and Ford’s shoulder made contact. He was flagged for targeting and ejected from the game. Duke would go on to score.
Targeting comes with a suspension, so Ford will miss the first half of the game at Syracuse.
Defense plays strong
Pitt’s defense had one of its best games under Narduzzi. In all, the Panthers forced six turnovers, the most it has come up with since 2011 against Syracuse.
In addition to Ford’s two interceptions, Jackson picked a pass off in the third quarter, Patrick Jones forced a pair of fumbles – which were recovered by Deslin Alexandre and Phil Campbell III – and Habakkuk Baldonado recovered a loose ball in the first quarter.
Jones’ second forced fumble essentially ended the game, as he came up with a strip sack on Duke’s final drive.
“That last play by Patrick Jones just forcing his way through there, heck of a rush at the end of the game because who knows what happens,” Narduzzi said. “The defense was outstanding… Our defense is playing well but we can play a lot better I can guarantee you that.”
For Jones, his six tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles were all career-highs. Coming into this game, Duke had only allowed one sack all season.
“I don’t really go into the game looking for numbers, I go into the game trying to get a win for the team,” Jones said. “The defensive line, we call ourselves QBK (quarterback killers). We pride ourselves in getting after the quarterback, so, that’s what we came in here to do.”
After having a week off to nurse an apparent shoulder injury, Pickett returned to the starting lineup for Pitt.
Narduzzi said he didn’t think Pickett was rusty, but he did throw a pair of interceptions. Pickett finished the night with three scores and 268 yards passing on 29-of-48 attempts. He had a QBR of 39.2 and a yards per-attempt mark of 5.6.
Pickett’s interception in the second quarter – which fell into the mitts of safety Marquis Waters in the red-zone – snapped his streak of 162 consecutive passes without a pick thrown. Pickett threw a second interception in the fourth quarter to defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord.
“It is just self-inflicting wounds and we just have to be more careful with the ball,” Narduzzi said.
Added Pickett: “I was pretty pissed off at myself for the interceptions. I don’t like turning the ball over. I take a lot of pride in not turning it over.”
Regarding his injury, Pickett said he felt good after the game.
“We’re still getting better. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to where we need to be. I think the defense played lights out tonight. They did a great job, they kept us in the game,” Pickett said. “You don’t want field goals, you want touchdowns. Obviously, we have to do a better job in that area, of finishing drives.”
With A.J. Davis and Vincent Davis out, Pickett’s partner in the backfield was often Todd Silbey, who finished with 60 yards on 12 carries. Narduzzi says he expects all of his running backs to be healthy for the Syracuse game and hopes that linebackers Chase Pine and Elias Reynolds are back too.
— Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch) October 6, 2019