PITTSBURGH — “Well, a win is a win is a win,” Pat Narduzzi said Saturday afternoon. “A win is pretty — helped us get the win today. Appreciate it.”
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always guaranteed as Pitt sometimes appeared as if it was giving Duke a chance to remain in the game, but a win is a win is a win. Pitt is 7-4 (4-3 ACC), and the chance to finish the season with a four-game win streak (five game win streak with a bowl win) is within reach.
Pitt’s 28-26 win over Duke was full of mistakes, two interceptions, a blocked punt and a punt through the punters’ hands, eight penalties and a swarm of pigeons, but it was a win, nonetheless.
An 8-4 regular season, capped by a bowl win, would be a solid season. And it’s right there for the taking. So, what is there to take away after beating Duke?
Defense Makes Stand When Necessary
Duke entered Acrisure averaging just over 200 yards per game on the ground, led by Riley Leonard’s dual-threat ability. Pitt held Duke to season-lows in rushing yards (63 yards), yards per attempt (2.3 yards) and longest rush (12 yards).
Leonard himself managed -4 yards on seven carries, and for Pitt’s defense, the task of stopping him and Blue Devils’ rushing attack was paramount.
“I think the mantra is ‘Stop the run, make them one-dimensional.’ And obviously, the passing yards can be kinda misleading, and I think they had 290 or something like that, but when you stop the run and hold somebody to 60 yards, that says a lot about our defense and how effectively we’re functioning,” Erick Hallett said following the win.
Leonard did throw a season-high 45 pass attempts against Pitt, racking up 290 yards and three touchdowns, but he relied heavily upon Jordan Moore — who hauled in 14 of 20 targets for 199 yards and a touchdown.
When it came to actually stopping Duke’s offense, Pitt limited the Blue Devils well.
Duke started inside Pitt territory twice, off a blocked Caleb Junko punt and a Kedon Slovis interception, and Pitt allowed just seven points. Off of Slovis’s two interceptions, Pitt allowed no points — which included a turnover on downs on Slovis’ second pick.
“You know, they can — our defense is playing at a high level,” Pat Narduzzi said after the win. “We made some stupid mistakes out there which drives me nuts.
“But you know, overall, with what we were dealing with out there, I think we were on the field for 35 minutes or 34 minutes, something like that. The defense did a good job today. They won time of possession today which hasn’t happened much this year. But our defense stepped up. Made some good plays. We stopped the run. Quarterback didn’t run the ball like the leading rusher. We were able to stifle him as well.”
To say that Pitt’s second half offensive possession didn’t help the defense would be an understatement, managing just 123 yards on 32 plays (two interceptions, a turnover on downs and two punts), but Pitt delivered a performance that was enough for a win.
And in allowing two fourth quarter touchdowns, while forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and a turnover on downs, Hallett still sees the room for improvement.
“I think we’ve just been harping, especially the last couple of weeks, that we gotta finish,” Hallett said. “We gotta do better in the fourth quarter. As you can see there, we still have some room to improve. Just find ways we can get after the quarterback better, play a better coverage, play a different coverage and shore up in the fourth quarter.”
The defensive stand, especially the two-point conversion attempt that Pitt snuffed out courtesy of a SirVocea Dennis drag-down, showcased that improvement. A bend, don’t break mentality.
“It just shows who we are, what type of defense we are and that it’s finally clicking this season,” Brandon Hill said following the win. “I’m just happy to be a part of it and happy to let you guys got to see it.”
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was enough to carry Pitt to a win.
Ben Sauls Saves the Day
Two Ben Sauls field goals made the difference in a one score loss to Tennessee earlier this season, and two Sauls field goals made the difference in a one score win against Duke Saturday.
Sauls missed a 36-yard and 46-yard field goal against Tennessee. He missed another against Western Michigan the next week, and he missed a 54-yard attempt against Virginia last week, but he’s been one of Pitt’s most consistent players since the Tennessee misses.
A 47-yard field goal sailed through the uprights in the first quarter, and Sauls outdid himself with a career-long 51-yarder into the open end of Erasure Stadium in the second quarter. And as he has been all season, he was perfect on point-after attempts.
“(Sauls has) done an outstanding job,” Narduzzi said. “Those are two long ones and that 51 is into the wind, he drove that thing, started getting nervous but he drove that thing through the uprights. We have got a lot of confidence in him right now and he’s got a lot of confidence in himself.”
Sauls has connected on 15-of-19 field goal attempts (78.9%) this season, and he’s gone 12-of-14 (85.7%) since the Tennessee game. It’s never been an issue of whether or not Sauls has a strong enough leg, his 54-yarder struck the upright right around the middle point, way, way off the ground.
It’s been an issue of accuracy, and it appears that Sauls is finally dialed into his attempts now. Pitt wouldn’t have won without him against Duke.
“He’s kicked the ball extremely well, really smoking it too,” Slovis said. “So, given the weather, wind, all that stuff, it doesn’t matter, he knocks all his field goals in.”
Quarterback and Wide Receivers Aren’t In Sync
Kedon Slovis fired a dart across the middle of the field to hit Jared Wayne for a 15-yard touchdown with 10 seconds left in the first half.
It was kinda weird to watch after Slovis went 3-of-9 for 56 yards over Pitt’s first three possessions — helped by a 20-yard gain from Israel Abanikanda on a screen.
But on Pitt’s final offensive possession of the first half, Slovis completed 5-of-9 pass attempts for 71 yards and the aforementioned touchdown — and one of his incompletions was a Wayne drop.
If that drive is taken away, Slovis completed 10-of-21 pass attempts for 119 yards and two interceptions against Duke. It was a beautiful drive, nearly perfect, but that was the extent of Slovis’ positive efforts.
It doesn’t help that he never truly seemed to be in sync with his wide receivers, and that there were a handful of instances in which his receivers failed to haul in catchable footballs. Slovis didn’t look good, but his receivers made him look worse.
That’s a theme that has plagued Pitt all season, and it doesn’t appear that it will be fixed this season.
It takes time to build chemistry, for players to integrate into an offense, but Pitt has played 11 games this season. Slovis arrived in January. It was basically an entire offseason to learn Frank Cignetti Jr.’s offense together. It hasn’t worked.
Narduzzi felt like Slovis was comfortable in controlling the offense though.
“When you throw two interceptions, it starts to get to you a little bit and you start to question yourself,” Narduzzi said. “But he had a nice scramble for a first down which you don’t see him do that very often and he was composed and smooth on the sideline and good after the game. So, I think he was fine. You know, he just didn’t make a couple of throws that he needs to make.”
Pitt’s receivers dropped a handful of footballs against Duke, with Wayne, Konata Mumpfield and Gavin Bartholomew failing to haul in targets, and there were times when it was clear Pitt wasn’t on the same page offensively.
Slovis’ first interception came on a clear miscommunication between himself and Abanikanda, delivering an easy interception into the hands of Duke’s Datrone Young.
“I kinda got to know my personnel, receiver, I think, was Izzy running a corner,” Slovis said. “We want to keep it high but thinking where the leverage was, I was thinking flat. Again, you’ve got running back, probably should’ve just checked it down there and not necessarily having the same kind of route running experience as someone else.”
Another missed opportunity resulted from a miscommunication between Slovis and Bub Means, a 3rd-and-9 opportunity in the fourth quarter in which Means never looked back for the football.
“I think the one with Bub was kind of a dagger concept, we’re kinda teaching him ‘Run through, run through, run through,’ and so he’s done that,” Slovis said. “But I think today he was just over-focused on running through and not really looking for the ball. That’s really just coaching, learning and getting more comfortable with the offense.”
Learning, coaching and getting more comfortable with the offense is fine. It takes time. But Pitt has one game left this season, and the miscommunications haven’t gotten any better.
Linebackers Rounding Into Form
As Duke’s Jordan Moore took a quick handoff from Jaylen Coleman on the end-around, Moore was supposed to fire a pass to Riley Leonard to convert a key two-point attempt and force overtime.
Instead, Pitt’s defensive line pushed the Duke offensive line back, and SirVocea Dennis ripped Moore to the ground, basically cementing Pitt’s win. No matter how convoluted it was finished.
Dennis racked up a season-high 14 tackles (six solo), a tackle for loss and forced a fumble from the heart of Pitt’s defense. His game-saving tackle of Moore on the two-point conversion attempt technically didn’t count on the stat sheet, but it was another masterclass from Dennis.
And he wasn’t alone in impacting the game defensively against Duke. Shayne Simon recorded five tackles (all solo), a sack, broke up a pass and played excellent coverage defense. Bangally Kamara put together one of his best games this season, wracking up just two tackles (one solo) but two pass breakups and two quarterback hits.
It’s no coincidence that Pitt’s top-10 run defense, which will rise even higher after this week, really grew into itself after th linebacking corps really found itself around Dennis.
“(The linebackers are) tremendous,” David Green said following the win. “They continue to get better every day, every week.”
Dennis is one of the best linebackers in college football, and his performance against Duke only cemented that. But Simon and Kamara have continued to grow into their roles as starters in Pitt’s linebacking corps, and Tylar Wiltz and Solomon DeShields filled in where needed against the Blue Devils.
Aside from Wiltz, who has also grown into role as a pseudo-starter at Star linebacker, all of Pitt’s linebackers have the opportunity to return next season. Dennis and Simon are seniors who will have decisions to make, but Kamara and DeShields will be back regardless. And if all the pieces return, it could be the continuation of the progress built to end this season.
What Would Eighth Win Mean for Pitt?
Pitt entered November at 4-4, with back-to-back losses to Louisville and North Carolina, and there didn’t appear to be an ‘easy’ win left on the schedule.
Pitt has since rolled off wins against then-ranked Syracuse, Virginia and Duke since, rising to 7-4 (4-3 ACC) with the chance to finish 8-4 and cap off a disappointing season with a bowl win. A 9-4 season with a bowl win would be a successful — if still disappointing — response to a conference title.
With three wins in a row, no matter how closely each game has played at times during the three-game win streak, Pitt is still 7-4. A win against Miami would cap an unbeaten November and a strong win streak to end the season.
“You know what, you can say that,” Narduzzi said about gaining momentum. “I’ll go home and watch this videotape and make myself sick, one of those, you know, gave them too much today. But we got momentum I guess, right? And we’ve got a chance to go down to Miami and play some ball Saturday at 8:00 p.m.”
It hasn’t been the season that anyone involved with the program had hoped for, as inconsistency, injuries and even incompetence have held Pitt this season. However, after a 1-3 October, the rebound In November has been an effort that hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“It makes me incredibly proud, just the resilience of this team,” Hallett said. “Obviously, October didn’t go how we wanted it to go, but to see the guys bounce and see the guys not lose faith in each other, to come together from that type of adversity, it’s something you want to see in a team.”
There has not been a lack of effort when it comes to any level of the team this season. The investment, the heart and soul of the team, is very apparent.