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Pitt Extends Win Streak Over Duke

By Dave Holcomb
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After a seesaw fourth quarter, the night ended on a high, as the Panthers rallied, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining to edge Duke, 33-30.

The Pitt Panthers have been an up-and-down football team the last two weeks. Pitt was no different against Duke on Saturday.

After building a 23-point lead early in the third quarter, the Panthers gave up the next 27 points and faced a four-point deficit with under two minutes to play. In many ways, Pitt’s performance Saturday night was a microcosm of how the program has swung with extreme highs and lows this season and throughout the Pat Narduzzi’s tenure.

Fortunately for Pitt, after a seesaw fourth quarter, the night ended on a high, as the Panthers rallied, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 38 seconds remaining to edge Duke, 33-30.

Over the last two games, Duke hadn’t turned the ball over at all, but that changed in a big way Saturday night. After kicking a field goal on their first drive, the Blue Devils committed five giveaways on their next 11 possessions. Pitt took advantage, scoring 17 points off those turnovers, including a pick-six.

Duke finished the night with more giveaways than it had in its first four games combined.

One of the biggest keys to victory for Pitt was generating a pass rush against Duke’s stout offensive line, which had allowed only one sack in the first month of the year. The Blue Devils handled the Pitt defensive front well for most of the night. Duke’s three interceptions were the result of terrible decision-making and not poor protection.

But it only takes one big defensive play to wreck a game. Pitt produced two with its pass rush, recording two sack-fumbles in the victory. In total, Pitt registered six takeaways, which should have been more than enough to cruise to a victory in Durham.

This, though, is Pitt were talking about here -- the ultimately roller coaster football program. Just when the Panthers led 26-3, Pitt sophomore defensive back Paris Ford, who was at the center of so many crucial plays Saturday, fumbled a punt at his own 4-yard line.

Ford led the Panthers with 12 total tackles, including eight solos and intercepted two passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Without Ford, Pitt doesn’t come close to beating Duke, so one cannot focus too much on his mistake as a punt returner.

Having said that, it was a horrid mistake. He shouldn’t be fielding the ball at his own 4-yard line, and the fumble turned the tide of the game. Duke scored a touchdown on the play immediately following Ford’s blunder. Pitt then turned the ball over on it next two offensive possessions, both of which led to Duke touchdowns.

All of the sudden, the Blue Devils only trailed by two with still nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Pitt avoided a fourth straight turnover, but the Panthers struggled to accumulate rushing yards all night, rushing for only 69 yards and averaging 2.9 yards per carry. Pitt couldn’t run out the clock, and Duke received another shot on offense with 3:18 left.

At this point, Pitt really began to unravel, and once more, Ford was at the center of it. On third-and-10 from the Duke 14-yard line, the Blue Devils came up one yars short of the first down, but Ford committed a personal foul targeting penalty, which gave Duke a first down and ejected him from the game.

After the call stood in replay, Ford went absolutely ballistic on the sidelines and needed a police escort to the locker room in order to leave the bench area. Without Ford, Pitt gave up the go-ahead touchdown with 1:29 left.

But now seemingly down and out, the Panthers offense woke up and quickly drove 82 yards on six plays from scrimmage (two were penalties) to the end zone. Kenny Pickett found V’Lique Carter for a 26-yard touchdown inside of 40 seconds.

On a night that saw Pitt and Duke commit 10 takeaways, the Panthers ended the game with a sack fumble on Duke’s final possession.

It’s hard to find any definitive takeaway points from one of the craziest ACC games of recent memory. Pitt went from a dominating performance against one of the best ACC Coastal teams to blowing a golden opportunity for a key conference win back to winning in dramatic fashion.

As the saying goes, a win is a win, but the only thing that seems to be certain with the Pitt football program is the uncertainty. The Panthers play up and down to competition every week and can’t sustain strong play for more than a few quarters at a time. Remember, Pitt blew a 21-point lead against UCF two weeks ago only to come back and win in dramatic fashion with a “Pitt special.”

When it comes down to it, in addition to being a microcosm of Pitt’s season, this contest was also a microcosm of the ACC Coastal Division. Just when a team emerges as a potential Coastal contender is usually when it falls totally flat. The division is chaotic not only week to week but quarter to quarter.

Pitt improved to 1-1 in conference play with its memorable victory Saturday night, but the Panthers will be without Ford, who is arguably the team’s best defensive player for the first half against Syracuse next week because of the targeting foul.

But knowing this Pitt seesaw program, the Panthers will somehow find a way to play better without him and then make things interesting when he returns during the second half.