PITTSBURGH — It’s not a good sign when a flock of pigeons provides more excitement than the two football teams on the field for most of the first half, but it’s better than watching the second half devolve into a disasterclass of how to win a football game.
Pitt’s offense started slowly, offered a glimpse of promise on a nearly perfect two minute drill to end the first half and then failed to build upon any momentum in the second half — with offensive and special teams woes.
Caleb Junko’s fumbled snap, on a drive in which Pitt’s offense failed to burn much clock late in the fourth quarter, set Duke up at the Pitt 22 with just over three-and-a-half minutes left in the game. A Jaylen Coleman touchdown with under a minute left gave Duke a chance to force overtime with a successful two point conversion.
And SirVocea Dennis sniffed out the attempted trick play, dragging Duke’s Jordan Moore down in the backfield to seal a 28-26 win at Acrisure Stadium Saturday afternoon.
Pitt’s defense limited Duke’s high-powered rushing attack to just 63 yards, scored a defensive touchdown and ultimately did enough to pull out a shaky win and improve to 7-4 (4-3 ACC).
Slovis completed 15-of-32 pass attempts for 190 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, a banged-up Israel Abanikanda crossed the 100-yard mark for the eighth time this season with 113 yards and a touchdown and Pitt’s offense held up long enough to secure a win.
It’s been the story of the season, and Pitt’s offense — once again — failed to string together any sort of consistent play through most of the first half. It was the result of lackluster play calling and poor execution of what was actually called.
Without Israel Abanikanda offensively, who racked up 78 yards in the first half on just 13 touches, the offensive approach was dropped passes and missed reads. Until the final offensive series of the half. Slovis stepped into his throws and delivered a strike to Jared Wayne in stride and executed his reads to hit Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means.
With the ball at the Duke 14, Slovis fired a strike over the middle of the field for a Jared Wayne touchdown.
Inexplicably, Pitt’s offense executed a perfect two minute drill after 28 minutes of ineptitude. It was exactly the kind of quarterback Pitt expected when Slovis arrived.
But despite 20 first half points, Pitt’s first half performance wasn’t much to look at. A shanked punt from Duke’s Porter Wilson set Pitt up at the Pitt 44, and Pitt managed just 26 yards before Ben Sauls drilled a 47-yard field goal. A muffed punt from Duke’s Jalon Calhoun set Pitt up at the Duke 6. Abanikanda scampered in on the next play.
Two Sauls’ field goals, including a career-long 52-yarder in the second quarter, helped the offense, and he may have been the only special teamer to show up against Duke. Two special teams plays directly helped 14 first half points from Duke.
Another blocked punt, with Caleb Junko becoming the third Pitt punter have a punt blocked, set up Duke inside Pitt territory in the first quarter. Duke’s Riley Leonard made Pitt pay, hitting Calhoun on a 28-yard touchdown toss to take an early 7-3 lead. A roughing the punter call, which has also plagued Pitt all season, gave Duke new life.
And once again Leonard made Pitt pay, capping an 11-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown dive to take a 14-13 lead in the second quarter.
However, Pitt still led 20-14 entering the second half, and Pitt’s offense — which appeared to figure things out with the two minute drill to end the half — got the ball out of the break.
It did appear that Slovis was figuring things out, hitting three different targets. The threat of a pass opened up the defense, and Abanikanda broke off a 26-yard run. Pitt worked down into the red zone, before being moved back by a Gabe Houy personal foul, and Slovis threw another interception on a completely blown play.
It didn’t get better. Slovis threw an even worse interception on the next offensive series, his indecision on a 3rd-and-5 from the Duke 41 resulting in a forced throw that was picked off by Duke’s Shaka Heyward.
It felt like Pitt’s defense would need to force a turnover or two of its own, and David Green and Brandon Hill combined to take it a step further. Green knocked the ball loose from Duke’s Jordan Waters’ hands, and Hill scooped and scored from 30 yards out to push Pitt’s lead to 28-14.
Just when it felt like Pitt’s defense might clamp down on the Duke offense, a completely blown coverage resulted in a wide-open Jordan Moore 49-yard touchdown strike. A missed two point conversion left Pitt’s lead at eight points, and another poor offensive possession from Slovis resulted in a punt.
Pitt’s defense, after allowing the blown coverage touchdown, began to wear down as Duke once again crossed midfield with a chance to tie, but Pitt’s defense forced a second turnover on downs of the game.
But after a quick three and out, Junko trotted out onto the field, stood back for the punt and let the ball slip through his hands. Junko scooped it up and was tackled on Pitt’s 22. Yes, it actually happened again. Duke’s offense was able to find the end zone for a late touchdown, but the two point conversion attempt fell incomplete.
Pitt will close the regular season against Miami next weekend, kicking off at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami at 8 p.m.