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Pitt Looks to Play Spoiler at Duke

By Dave Holcomb
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Pat Narduzzi’s team has trouble with expectations but plays some of its best football as an underdog.

Pitt came into the week as a seven-point underdog against Duke. The spread has since dropped to about five points, but that’s actually good news for the Panthers.

Pat Narduzzi’s team has trouble with expectations but plays some of its best football as an underdog. The Panthers can play the role of spoiler again this Saturday on the road against the Blue Devils.

It’s been a roller coaster couple weeks for Pitt. On Sept. 21, the Panthers pulled off a crazy fourth-down trick play, which has already been nicknamed the Pitt special, to score a touchdown with under a minute to play. The score propelled Pitt past playoff-hopeful UCF, 35-34.

But then last week, the Panthers laid an egg -- Twitter trolls joked it was another kind of Pitt special -- nearly losing to FCS Delaware. Pitt avoided embarrassment, though, with a 20-17 win.

Of course, Duke had its own memorable last week of September, routing the Virginia Tech Hokies last Friday, 45-10. That blowout win might just prove to be the straw that broke the camel's back for Justin Fuente.

With those two results in mind, it’s easy to see why Duke is more than a field-goal favorite, but with Pitt’s tendency to play up or down to its opponent’s level and its recent success against the Blue Devils, don’t be shocked if Pitt produces another “surprising” result in Week 6.

The most intriguing matchup in this game, by far, will be the Pitt pass rush against the Duke offensive line. The Panthers are second in the country and lead the ACC with 24.0 sacks. Pitt has recorded at least three sacks in every game this season. Against UCF, they sacked the quarterback six times.

Meanwhile, Duke has allowed just one sack in four games, which includes a matchup against Alabama. The Crimson Tide did eventually blow out the Blue Devils, but Alabama didn’t get to quarterback Quentin Harris very often.

Harris and the Duke offense seem built to beat Pitt’s pass rush with quick releases and screen passes. Despite the pass rush, Pitt is also susceptible to giving up big plays. The Panthers have yielded 12 plays of 30 yards or more in five games, which is tied for the second-most in the ACC.

But interestingly, Pitt has allowed the third-fewest plays of 10 yards or more in the ACC. Somehow, it’s either all or nothing against the Panthers defense. The numbers say it’s easier to hit a big play against them than to methodically move the ball down the field.

That’s what makes this such an interesting matchup. Duke doesn’t hit big plays but strings together long drives with an intermediate passing attack. The Blue Devils are tied for second-to-last in the ACC in offensive plays of 30 yards or more and are third-to-last in passing yards of 10-plus yards.

Harris leads the ACC with a 72.9 completion percentage, but he only gets 7.1 yards per pass attempt and has averaged under 10 yards per completion.

Is this the weekend that changes because of Pitt’s inability to prevent big plays or will the Panthers pass rush continue to hit home and leave the Duke offense completely anemic?

If it means anything, recent history favors the Panthers. Since entering the ACC Coastal in 2013, Pitt has beaten Duke five out of six times, including each of the last four meetings. The Blue Devils haven’t defeated the Panthers in Durham since 1965.

This matchup will be the second ACC game this season for both programs, and while Duke comes into the weekend 1-0 with its victory against Virginia Tech, Pitt lost to Virginia in Week 1.

The Cavaliers lead the Coastal division with a 2-0 conference record, so for that reason, this is a bigger game for Pitt. The Panthers can’t afford to fall behind Virginia by two games when they already don’t hold the tiebreaker with the Cavaliers. There are no absolute must-wins in Week 6, but Pitt really needs a win this Saturday to stay in the division race.

Duke sits in second place of the division and other than Virginia, only one other team in the Coastal, North Carolina, has a conference win. But should the Blue Devils beat the Panthers, Duke will enter the “who’s the second best team in the ACC” conversation.

Just don’t be surprised if Pitt doesn’t allow Duke to cover the spread.