This week the Panthers travel to Durham, NC to face off with the 2-1 Blue Devils in a matchup most people would prefer to be on the hardwood. I love football, but Levance Fields’ game winner against Duke in Madison Square Garden a few years back may be my second favorite Pitt sports moment (I came to Pitt in 2004 you old farts). My favorite is still standing on the sidelines when Shady carried the ball every play but one on the game winning drive of the backyard brawl in 2008. While this matchup is on the grass, it’s still going to be an interesting one.
With an easy victory against an FCS school, a tough victory against an awful FBS school, and a manhandling by another ACC school (Georgia Tech), it’s tough to judge Duke at this point. They obviously aren’t that good, but how do they compare to Pitt, a team that could be anywhere for 4 wins to 9 wins this season?
Duke took a hit when starting QB Anthony Boone broke his collarbone against Memphis. Boone looked very good against Wake Forest and Virginia last year, winning both games. Backup Brandon Connette came in and did a great job, leading the Blue Devils to 2 4th quarter touchdowns in a 28-14 win. The problem isn’t that Connette had a good 4th quarter. The problem is he needed that in order for Duke to win. Memphis has not beaten a BCS opponent since 2004. They haven’t been to a bowl since 2008. Since then, they are 9-39. That’s an average of 2 or 3 wins per season against the likes of UAB, Rice, Tulane, and Southern Miss. To summarize: Memphis is awful and Duke fans should be concerned it was even close.
After senior QB Sean Renfree graduated, Duke opted to add more option plays to the offense. While they will not be anywhere near as option heavy as New Mexico or Georgia Tech (they still pass 42% of the time, nearly identical to Pitt’s ratio), it’s absolutely an element the defense will have to pay attention to. The play action could be a problem if the back 7 bites hard.
Connette hasn’t racked up a ton of yards running, but he does have 2 TDs and runs of 14 and 18 yards. If you give him the field he’ll eat up some yards. That’s the key to any option run: you have to respect he QB’s ability to get some yards. That’s why it failed with Tino. With Connette, he can make plays if you key on the RB. The defense will have to respect that.
When Connette hands the ball off, expect a heavy dose of sophomore Jela Duncan and senior Juwan Thompson. The two have combined for 60 carries, 312 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Neither is a game breaker; they haven’t had a carry longer than 16 yards. To put that in perspective, all 3 of Pitt’s RBs have had a longer run. Duncan is the top guy and had a good game (16 carries for 89 yards) against GT, so don’t be surprised if the ratio shifts more heavily his direction.
When Connette is throwing, expect him to consistently look Jamison Crowder’s direction. The 5’9 senior WR has 23 receptions for 240 yards on the season, including a critical 11 catch performance against Memphis. The other performer in the passing game is TE Braxton Deaver, with 10 catches on the season. The big play threat appears to be 6’6″ Junior WR Isaac Blakeney. Blakeney has 4 receptions of 19+ yards and 2 touchdowns already on the season, including a 20 yard catch on 3rd and long due to a broken tackle.
Duke primarily runs 3 WR sets. This does present a bit of an alignment question for the defense. Normally, 3 WR sets dictate nickel coverage (5 DBs). However, they’re a run heavy offense. Do you risk putting a safety or LB on a WR or do you pull a LB and give them a better shot at running the ball? I anticipate 4-3 coverage for the most part with a safety on the 3rd WR. Duke struggled to pass the ball against GT (15/28 for only 122 yards) but they did have some success running the ball. I’m confident our CBs can lock down their WRs, as they did to New Mexico. If your weak point on defense is who’s covering their 3rd option at WR, you’re in good shape. We know the starting defense can stop the option runs.
Overall, Duke is not very talented on offense. Their primary players are not big play types. They had five 3-and-outs against GT in the first half, a huge reason for the lopsided time of possession (39 to 21). Duke was 3/14 on 3rd down. When you don’t put away an awful Memphis team until the 4th quarter, you’ve got issues.
Duke runs a 4-2-5. That means 4 down linemen, 2 LBs, 2 CBs, and 3 safeties. One of the safeties is typically a hybrid LB/S. Overall, the defense appears to be much more talented than the offense. While the offense struggled against Memphis, the defense held their own. They only allowed 7 points and that touchdown came in the 4th quarter. They held on the first half against GT for awhile, but the inability of the offense to stay on the field (see above: 3 and outs) caused them to wear down. GT’s offense relies on wearing a defense down.
That doesn’t necessarily make Duke’s defense any good. They return 5 starters from a unit that ranked 105th in the country last season. The two best players on defense appear to be LB Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash. They combined for 31 tackles and a forced fumble against GT. It’s tough to gauge the secondary because their first 2 opponents were garbage and GT only threw the ball 16x compared to 60 rushes. They do have All-ACC CB Ross Crockwell returning, which just means you throw away from him and you’re fine. Duke gave up a lot of long completions last season when they threw awal from Crockwell.
I imagine Duke is going to sell out on the run. They’ll keep at least one safety in the box, quite possibly two. That’s the advantage of the 4-2-5; you can put 8 guys in the box but still be prepared for the pass. The downside is the offense has a big size advantage in the trenches. Duke’s biggest safety is 6’2 210 pound Cash. That’s fine for a safety, but Holtz, Parrish, and Garner will eat him alive. I say they’ll sell out on the run because it’s an area they can “win.” If they play back to cover the pass, the offense will happily run the ball all game long. If they sell out on run, we’re still going to run the ball. Hope to force short runs and put the offense into low percentage 3rd downs where even the worst secondary can win half the time.
Like New Mexico, Duke’s DL will be significantly smaller than Pitt’s OL. That will be a trend all season due to how gigantic this OL is. The size difference is by design. They do not have a single DL larger than Artie Rowell, Pitt’s smallest OL. This makes the gameplan logical: line up and hit ’em hard in the trenches. If the running game gets going, Duke is going to be in a lot of trouble.
With a safety in place of a 3rd LB, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Pitt’s OL and TEs have a size advantage. Duke got manhandled by GT and the defense was on the field for nearly 40 minutes. Something you often see after opponents play a triple option team is that they struggle the following week against a different type of offense. They get so used to standing back and reading that when an offense plays them straight up, they arrive late.
Once the running game gets going, all Savage has to do is throw some accurate medium to deep passes in the area of Boyd and Street and we could see a blowout. If they are successful with stopping the run, who knows how this could turn out?
Duke’s offense has been underwhelming with Connette at the helm. Memphis gave up 30+ points 7x last season and one of those was to Duke. Duke very easily could have lost to Memphis if one thing goes the other direction. The offense was pretty much useless against GT; they had 1 score before the 4th quarter and the game was over then.
Duke’s best way to win this game is to stop the run and force a few turnovers on defense. If Pitt’s offense is working, Duke does not have the ability to keep up in a shootout. They’re certainly more talented than New Mexico, but top to bottom, Pitt is much better, especially in terms of offensive playmakers and the secondary. Pitt has the ability to score a ton of points on Duke while the opposite is not true.
Pitt should win if they handle their end of things. I think it’ll be 31-20.