Not sure how to handle this one.
The offense was fantastic. The O-line gave Savage plenty of time and opened up holes for the running game. James Conner now appears to be the primary running back — even if not listed as the starter. Tom Savage had an absolutely brilliant game. Accurate throws. Looking off his receivers a lot more. Devin Street and Tyler Boyd are possibly the best 1-2 WR combo in the ACC. And Kevin Weatherspoon’s abrupt and clutch emergence as the 3d WR. The playcalling was aggressive and smart for most of the game.
It feels like that doesn’t begin to do their performance justice.
And that’s because…
Defense and special teams did so much to nearly undo everything the offense did.
Starting with the defense. It was a defense that had 4 interceptions — including one returned for a TD — and forced three 3-and-outs and a 4-and-out when Duke tried and failed on 4th down. Yet it could barely hang on to the game.
Giving up 424 yards (323 passing & 101 rushing) to the Duke back-up QB. Helped Pitt to a 20-point and 23-point lead only to let the lead dwindle back down to single digits just as quickly. And it wasn’t because the defense was tired. Pitt held the ball for nearly 13 more minutes than Duke.
The defense lost focus for large stretches. Not being disciplined in their assignments when facing a team that could spread them out and have the QB run. Just like the Florida State game, where they looked confused and lost.
After Pitt went ahead, 51-28, with 3:18 left in the third — the Panthers’ largest lead of the game — the defense responded by allowing Duke to score on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of its next drive, giving the Blue Devils hope and keeping them within striking distance.
“I wouldn’t say [I’m] frustrated,” defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. “There’s disappointment at times when you give up a first-play drive for 75 yards and let them score. But we stayed together and we kept fighting and we came out with a win. I’m happy with that.”
Pitt’s defense seemed to turn a corner last week when it shut down New Mexico’s option rushing attack. But against Duke’s spread, Pitt defenders had trouble defending the Blue Devils in the open field, similar to the struggles they had in the opener against Florida State.
“Last week we did a better job of, maybe, assignment football,” Chryst said. “When they take a defense and they spread you apart, there are components, there are options. If one guy is off on his thing, whether his eyes are wrong or doesn’t defeat a block, [it doesn’t work].”
A lot of blame should go on the players, but the coaches are the ones that prepare them. And they are the ones that kept deciding to send out Ray Vinopal to play free
The defense has me terrified at this point. The side of the ball that has all the veterans. That has the experience. The weak spots on the defense, though, are being picked at with regularity and the coaching staff is showing little ability to do anything to adjust to or mask the problems.
Then there are the special teams.
Not included in that total, however, are Duke’s 211 return yards that, combined with other special-teams mistakes, nearly cost Pitt (2-1, 1-1) its first ACC victory.
It started when freshman kicker Chris Blewitt missed an extra-point attempt — the Panthers’ fourth in the past eight seasons — after the first touchdown.
Then Duke defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento blocked a 24-yard field-goal attempt that wasted a 19-yard interception return by safety Jason Hendricks to the Duke 42.
It got worse just before halftime when Duke’s Jamison Crowder, who scored two other touchdowns from scrimmage on run and pass plays, returned a punt 82 yards for a touchdown. That turned what had been a 27-7 Pitt advantage into a 30-28 lead.
And every Pitt fan started flashing back (“Over Macho Grande?” “No. I don’t think I’ll ever get over Macho Grande.”) to December 2009 against Cinci.
The game appeared to be slipping away with 4:29 left when punter Matt Yoklic dropped a snap at the Pitt 30, setting up Duke’s final touchdown and the second by quarterback Brandon Connette.
“Our coverage units, special teams in general, all four phases,” coach Paul Chryst said, pointing out one of the areas where Pitt needs to improve.
Um, yeah. Who’s in charge of special teams? No, really. Who is in charge? It’s not listed on the “Coaches” page aside from one graduate assistant. I mean, I can understand not wanting to take the “credit” but usually someone is given the job. I have to assume it is the head coach. It might be time for him to put a little more time on that aspect. [EDITOR NOTE: Not sure how I missed this factoid, but it seems that special teams coach is “by committee” per Sam Werner of the PG: “Chryst said this morning that he isn’t going to revisit the concept of coaching special teams by committee (Chris Haering is sort of the de facto coordinator, but really all of the coaches work with the special teams units)…” Hopefully he revisits it after this year, because this approach hasn’t looked any better in year 2 than in year 1.]
Now on the silver lining front, Pitt didn’t lose the game. Pitt, when it has close games in past years has not handled that well.
We have to be better at closing out a game,” Chryst said.
“We need to work on some stuff,” said defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had a sack and another tackle for a loss. “We got a win, so we’re going to be happy about the win, but I’m kind of disappointed as far as letting them score 55 points on us. I’m real disappointed in that part.”
Street, who has been around long enough to have seen some devastating losses, said he couldn’t help but think about Pitt losing leads against Iowa in 2011 and Notre Dame last year.
“Those close games, we couldn’t finish,” he said. “Today was a true test. I think it’s a good indication of where we’re at. Wins and losses come a dime a dozen, but effort can’t be matched.”
Then he added: “Of course, we have to get better.”
Pitt was 3-9 the past 3 years in games decided by 7 points or less (including those come from ahead losses to ND, WVU and Iowa). This time they at least hung on and did enough.
Now from the Duke side. Duke Head Coach Dave Cutcliffe saw that kind of offense Pitt ran back when he was the head coach at Ole Miss.
Back when Duke coach David Cutcliffe was coaching in the SEC, with SEC-sized players, he would run an offense similar to the one Pittsburgh used to shred Duke’s defense for 598 yards, he said. The Panthers ran the ball effectively to set up big passing plays, an age-old strategy that worked all day.
Due to the Panthers’ success on the ground, Duke safeties were cheating up and letting receivers get behind them. That happened on consecutive plays to safety Dwayne Norman, who was beaten on a 67-yard touchdown pass to Devin Street and a 69-yard toss to Tyler Boyd.
“Young men are fighters and competitors, and if they come out being successful running the ball on you, everyone wants to stop the run,” Cutcliffe said. “There are people that are pass-first, and there are people that are run-first, and you can’t cross over in that circumstance.
“When you’re in a deep zone, you’re trying to keep it all in front of you. You get mesmerized if you’re not careful at safety. I don’t have to see the tape to know you get mesmerized at safety with the play-fake. They’re big, they put that ball in there, and by the time you think it’s past, it is past. Well that’s too late with a guy that runs as well as their guys do.”
Duke — despite all the points their defense gave up — has to be wondering “what if” after 4 turnovers that led to 14 points. Cost them drives and possibly their own points.