DURHAM, N.C. – Pitt’s football team should not have lost to Miami last week. But, having fallen in that game, the thing the Panthers absolutely could not do was get beaten by Duke, a team winless in ACC play.
The win wasn’t always a sure thing on Saturday for the Panthers. Duke scored on a field goal, a safety, a long pass and a kick return to take a 19-14 lead in the second quarter. Pitt looked like it was in trouble.
And then Kenny Pickett started working his magic, and the defense buckled down.
Pickett threw for more than 400 yards for the fifth time in his Pitt career, and the Panthers forced a pair of turnovers and notched six sacks. On a chilly day at Wallace Wade Stadium, the Panthers won convincingly, 54-29.
“A lot of good plays out there on the field today, but a lot of ones we got to clean up for Thursday night,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Overall, you look at the way Kenny played, and Jordan Addison, and the defense played pretty good.”
The win for Pitt (7-2; 4-1 ACC) makes it 4-0 on the road this season, and marks Pitt’s best nine-game start to a season since 2009, when the Panthers began their campaign 8-1 under Dave Wannstedt. Pitt also remained undefeated against Duke in the Narduzzi era.
Defense gets after Duke
Pitt’s defense did its best to bottle up Duke running back Mateo Durant and rattle Blue Devils’ quarterback Gunnar Holmberg.
While Durant rushed for 81 yards, it was his second lowest rushing total of the season. Durant mustered only 41 yards against North Carolina A&T back in September, but he scored three times in that game. Durant scored just once against Pitt, and it came on a pass from Holmberg late in the game. Duke entered this contest with the nation’s 35th best rushing attack, and fourth best in the ACC, averaging 200.1 yards per-game on the ground. Pitt held the Blue Devils to 143 yards rushing on 50 carries, a 2.86 yards-per-carry clip.
“It was a goal,” money linebacker Phil Campbell III said of holding Durant under 100 yards. “That’s always our goal anyway. But he’s a good back and they have a good offensive line and a good scheme. It was going to be a challenge and we knew that.”
Additionally, Pitt piled up six sacks, bringing their total on the year to 31. Pitt entered this game with 25 sacks, a figure that ranked 12th nationally and second in the ACC. Holmberg mustered just 174 yards and one touchdown through the air against the Blue Devils
“The first quarter felt like last week a little bit. Some things didn’t go our way. I think we just focused on having fun and playing our game,” star linebacker John Petrishen said. “The offense had some miscues in the first quarter, and it was our time to pick them up. After last week, we let them down, so it was our time to step it up. And I think we did that.”
Narduzzi indicated in his post-game press conference that Duke might have had some inside information on Pitt’s defensive calls and schemes through Carson Van Lynn. The right tackle joined the Blue Devils as a graduate transfer this offseason after spending three seasons at Pitt.
“You feel like they got your signals,” Narduzzi said. You know, Carson Van Lynn’s over there staring at our signalers. We changed some things up, maybe we didn’t change them good enough, I don’t what it is, but we got it done. We got a spy on the other team, and our kids found a way to get it done.
“I don’t know when he was getting them. We’ve got a lot of changes, but (Van Lynn) is a smart kid. You never know. It felt like it. Our kids, early in the first quarter, said they were calling stuff out. So, we’ll see. No one else will have inside information for the rest of the year. That’s why in-conference transfers are not good.”
Pickett and Addison continue to rack up stats
With three touchdown passes on the day, Pickett jumped Alex Van Pelt and Tyler Palko in the Pitt record book for most career touchdown passes. With 68 scores through the air in his Pitt career, Pickett is now second all-time in Pitt passing scores, trailing only Dan Marino’s 79.
Additionally, Pickett tied Van Pelt’s record of most career games with at least 300 passing yards. Pickett tallied 416 yards through the windy and frigid air in Durham on Saturday, giving him 14 such games for his career.
“We just got back into a rhythm,” Pickett said. “Played our game, took what they were giving us, not trying to force anything.”
In addition to Pickett’s assault on Pitt’s record, sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison is jotting his name down in those pages too.
On Saturday, Addison caught seven passes for 171 yards and a touchdown. Addison’s yardage total makes him just 14 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. When he meets that mark, it will make him the first Pitt receiver since Tyler Boyd in 2014 – and just the 10th ever – with 1,000 or more receiving yards in a season.
Addison now has 11 touchdown catches this season, which is the most by any Pitt receiver since Larry Fitzgerald scored 22 in 2003. Addison entered this game only trailing Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Stern for the national lead in touchdown grabs. Stern didn’t score Saturday against Middle Tennessee State, so he and Addison are now tied for the national lead.
“He’s having an incredible year,” Pickett said of Addison. “Something I think we all saw coming on the team with how hard he works and the caliber of a player he is. He’ll continue to get better and improve.”
It’s no secret that Addison has become Pickett’s favorite target, and their chemistry has led to a boatload of points, yards and highlights for Pitt this season.
“I feel like I’ve been having a pretty good season so far. But we still have more games left. So, I’m just going to keep my head down, stay focused and keep working,” Addison said. “(Kenny and I) were focused on getting back on the same page. He knows my speed now and everything is just clicking for us on offense.”
Offensive line issues emerge
While Pickett and Addison shined against Duke, Pitt’s issues along its offensive line made themselves apparent.
For the first time this season, Marcus Minor did not start at right guard. The redshirt senior did indeed travel to Durham for the game, and was fully dressed to play on the sidelines, but never entered the game. Narduzzi did not say why Minor didn’t play.
Starting in place of Minor was redshirt junior Blake Zubovic, but on Pitt’s third drive of the game, he was replaced by redshirt sophomore Matt Goncalves. That drive began on Pitt’s own one-yard line and was short, as two Duke defenders muscled their way past the offensive line and tackled Vincent Davis in the end-zone for a safety.
It was the first time Pitt had given up a safety since 2018, when the Panthers were called for a holding penalty in their own end-zone against Penn State.
To make matters worse, starting right tackle Gabe Houy suffered what appeared to be an injury to his right leg in the second quarter. Houy went down on Pickett’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Addison, was helped off the field and entered the medical tent. Houy remained dressed to play, but exited the tent with his right ankle wrapped up. He did not return, and Goncalves filled in at right tackle while Zubovic continued to play left guard.
After Houy exited the game, Pitt heavily relied on an unbalanced offensive line in the second quarter, with the traditional right tackle lined up on the left side of the center, and a tight end in a three-point stance next to the right guard. The formation seemed to be effective, considering Pitt scored 23 points in the quarter.
Still, with moving pieces along the offensive line, Pickett was sacked three times. This comes after he was sacked four times against Miami. Before last week, Pickett was never sacked more than twice in a single game.
Pitt vs. Duke always weird
Games between the Panthers and the Blue Devils are often strange and high scoring, in true Coastal Division fashion. This meeting was no different.
The contest featured five scoring lead changes, a safety, a kickoff return for a touchdown and xxxx.
Since Pitt joined the ACC in 2013, they’ve played the Blue Devils every season except for the pandemic-shortened 2020. Out of the eight times they’ve matched-up – including Saturday’s meeting – six of those games have featured more than 60 combined points. Three times, Pitt and Duke have scored at least 99 points when facing each other. In five meetings, Pitt and Duke have been separated on the scoreboard by 10 points or less.
Pitt is now 16-9 all-time vs. Duke and has won six straight in the series.
“It’s hard to go on the road and win football games,” Narduzzi said. “In the ACC, I mean, (Duke) was 3-1 at home this year. They’ve played really good at home.”
Focus turns to UNC
With another tally in the win column, Pitt now turns its attention to a home contest this Thursday against the North Carolina Tar Heels. UNC upset No. 9 Wake Forest on Saturday in a high scoring game in Chapel Hill, ending the Demon Deacons’ undefeated streak.
The Panthers are 4-12 all-time against North Carolina, but beat the Tar Heels 34-27 in their last meeting in 2019, which was also on a Thursday night. The match-up will feature two of the game’s top quarterbacks this season, Pickett and UNC’s Sam Howell.
“It has nothing to do with me and Sam, one-on-one. It’s Pitt vs. North Carolina,” Pickett said. “It’s going to be a great game, for sure.”
Pitt’s next two games, against UNC and Virginia – the second and third place teams in its division – are crucial if the Panthers want to play in Charlotte in December for the ACC championship.
“We got to get to work,” Narduzzi said. Soon as I jump on that plane, I’ll be downloading North Carolina tape.”