Duke led Pitt at two separate points in a conference game last season, a much bigger matchup as Pitt’s title hopes hinged upon a victory, but a second quarter surge from Kenny Pickett and the Pitt offense led to a 54-29 win nonetheless.
It was the Kenny Pickett Show in Durham, North Carolina last season, as Pickett racked up nearly 500 yards of offense and four touchdowns, but it was also another opportunity for Duke backup Riley Leonard to see the field.
Leonard, who earned the starting quarterback spot this season, didn’t play a whole bunch last season as he sat behind incumbent starter Gunnar Holmberg, but he did show flashes. Against Pitt, he completed just 6-of-13 pass attempts for 63 yards with a touchdown and interception, adding 31 yards on 11 carries, but he had that ability to impact a game.
It’s safe to say that Duke has unleashed Leonard’s playmaking ability this season.
Duke is 7-3 (4-2 ACC) this season, with narrow losses to North Carolina and Georgia Tech, and Leonard has been perhaps the biggest factor in Duke’s rise.
With 2,113 yards and 13 touchdowns (to five interceptions) on 178-of-278 passing attempts, Leonard has risen to new heights as a passer. But he’s also added 625 yards and 10 touchdowns on 100 carries — the leading rusher in Duke’s second-ranked rushing offense in the ACC.
Pitt’s defense did a good job limiting Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong last week, limiting Syracuse and Virginia to just 17 rushing yards over the last two weeks, and there’s been a learning curve — facing off against Jeff Sims, Malik Cunningham, Drake Maye and Brennan Armstrong — of stopping dual-threat quarterbacks.
Pat Narduzzi has seen how Pitt has gradually adapted to the threat of rushing quarterbacks, but at the end of the day, it’s another matchup for Pitt’s defense to attack as it has all season.
“Nobody cares what they did last week,” Narduzzi said Thursday. “Duke’s not going to worry about that. They’re going to play their game. They’re going to hope — they may check more than other teams that we see, so if they see pressure coming, we’ve got to do a good job disguising and not showing them stuff.
“But they do a good job. If they see something coming over here, they’re going to go over there. If they see it coming from over there, they’re going to check it, they’re going to get themselves into a screen, they’re going to do something. They’ll have their plan.”
Narduzzi said that Pitt will have to stop Leonard specifically since he’s the key that unlocks the Duke offense. Even with three running backs that have racked up at least 350 yards on the ground this season, it’s Leonard’s ability that fuels the Blue Devils’ offense. And Duke’s staff puts all four of them into good positions.
Duke averages 203.8 yards per game this season, trailing only Florida State in the ACC, and at 5.3 yards per attempt (second) with 27 rushing touchdowns (first), it’s an efficient rushing offense that utilizes its many players.
Pitt’s success against rushing offenses this season has gradually improved, sitting now at No. 10 in the country in allowing just 97.7 rush yards per game, and Narduzzi has seen how that number has resulted.
It’s come about as Pitt’s three defensive phases, the defensive front, the linebackers and the secondary, have come together to fulfill the primary goal of a Narduzzi defense.
“We just have to be sound versus everything,” Narduzzi said. “If we blitz from the left side, then we have to be good versus whatever they do. It doesn’t matter; we have to execute; we have to know what’s happening. First, we have to make sure we don’t jump offsides, which we’ve worked on. The multiple clapping we’ll see this week.”
Duke’s rushing offense operates most effectively when Leonard is able to break defenses down by turning opposing rushes into yards attained through well-timed scrambles. According to PFF, Leonard has scrambled at least three times in seven games this season.
And in those 41 scramble attempts this season, he’s racked up 312 yards — just about half of his rush yards this season. Leonard is effective when plays break down, using his legs to pick up first downs and extend plays for the Blue Devils.
But it’s not just scrambling ability that serves Leonard. He’s been effective in designed runs too.
Leonard has racked up 339 yards after contact this season, good for 3.53 yards after contact per attempt, and he’s made 16 tacklers miss. With 18 rush attempts of 10 yards or more (three rush attempts of 15 yards or more), he’s adept at moving the chains.
And in 10 games this season, Leonard has busted a run of at least 50 yards three times.
“He had two good quarterback keepers against us last year, one in mop-up duty at the end of the game but one for 10 yards early on a keeper where the tight end kind of avoids and he’s got a blocker for him on a zone-read keep, but he’s got a — we call it a void, a tight end that’s going to block downfield on a safety,” Narduzzi said.
And despite the threat of Leonard on the ground, he’s also grown as a passer. With 11 big-time throws to just five turnover-worthy throws, he’s chosen his shots well. And it’s come about with a 7.9-yard average depth of target.
Leonard has dropped back on 96 pass attempts this season, and he’s been sacked on 11 of those dropbacks — but he’s also scrambled 41 times. His average time to throw has been a quick 2.73 seconds.
And when it comes to Leonard’s passing depth, he’s been efficient in both intermediate (29-of-55 pass attempts for 563 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions) and deep (15-of-32 pass attempts for 518 yards with five touchdowns and an interception) ball opportunities.
Pitt has handled opposing quarterbacks well over the last two weeks, since dealing with Cunningham and Maye on the road, and if Pitt is to reach its goal of nine regular season wins, Leonard will need to be stopped at Acrisure Stadium.