Defense makes another strong statement against Duke
MORE FROM THE GAME - Pitt wins on last-minute drive | Game of extremes goes in Pitt's favor | Postgame video: Narduzzi on the win | Rundown: Narduzzi's comments on the game and more | Postgame video: Jackson on the defense | Postgame video: Pickett on the offense | Postgame video: Jones discusses his performance | Postgame video: Carter on the game-winner | PODCAST: The drive home from Duke
DURHAM (N.C.) - Through the first five games of the season, it has been very difficult for Pitt’s opponents to drive the length of the field on the Panthers, and in Saturday night’s 33-30 win over Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium, that trend continued.
Sure, the Blue Devils scored 30 points and held a lead in the final two minutes. But they gained less than 300 yards and they averaged less than four yards per play while never really building a consistently effective attack through the course of the game.
The result was that Saturday night’s game had a lot of the same traits as Pitt’s first four contests this season: long drives were hard to come by.
Virginia, Ohio, Penn State, UCF and Delaware combined for five touchdown drives of 50 yards or more - possessions that started in the opponent’s territory - in those five games. That’s an average of one long touchdown drive per game, and Duke kept that average intact with just one touchdown drive that started on their own side of the field.
Of course, the downside is that Duke’s lone long touchdown drive was an 86-yard march in the final three minutes that put the Blue Devils ahead 30-26; that was an inopportune time to give up a long drive and it put the pressure on Pitt’s offense to answer with a game-winning drive of its own. But the overall work of the Panthers’ defense on Saturday was impressive.
And the one area were Pitt broke with trends was a positive one, as the Panthers recorded six turnovers - a significant amount considering they came into the game with just two takeaways on the season.
The turnover parade started on Duke’s second drive when redshirt sophomore linebacker Cam Bright hit Duke quarterback Quentin Harris; the hit jarred the ball loose and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado scooped it up.
The next turnovers came from redshirt sophomore Paris Ford, who had been close on two takeaway opportunities this season. On the drive after the fumble, he picked off a Harris pass that had been tipped by Dane Jackson and ran 26 yards for a touchdown; then, two Duke snaps later, Ford grabbed another Harris throw and set up a Pitt field goal.
The turnovers kept coming. Jackson had a pick of his own on a Duke trick play, and then redshirt junior defensive end Patrick Jones logged a pair of strip-sacks, including one that ended Duke’s final drive of the game.
In addition to the turnovers, Pitt’s defense also continued to pressure the quarterback. The Panthers came into Saturday’s game with 24 sacks and they added three more against Harris, who had been sacked just once in Duke’s first four games.
“They were outstanding,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said of his defense after the game. “Then they got us in the triple-option in the one series after they scored. You know, short field and they just kind of wore us down with some of that and really just ate the clock up and ran the football a little bit. But our defense is playing well. But we can play a lot better, I can guarantee you that.”
The best thing that can happen for Pitt’s defense might be having the Panthers’ offense protect the ball better. Three of Duke’s four touchdowns on Saturday night came after turnovers (that number includes a fumbled punt return) and that has been a trend this season; of the 11 touchdowns Pitt’s defense allowed entering Saturday night, two came after fumbles, two came after interceptions, one came after a turnover on downs and one came after a punt block.
Pitt’s defense isn’t looking for excuses, of course, but the unit doesn’t need many: they have been very good through the first half of the season.
“I love the fight that our guys put out there tonight,” Jackson said after the game. “I'm proud of our guys.”