Prediction: Blue Devils’ defense too much for Panthers

Quadree Henderson rushed for 73 yards during Pitt’s 56-14 victory against Duke last year. (Photo by Jordan Mondell | Contributing Editor)

In the Panthers’ upcoming football game against Duke, both teams will be battling fiercely to bring back a sense of pride.

Pitt (2-5 overall, 0-3 ACC) will try to reestablish confidence in the coaching staff’s decision-making, as the Blue Devils (4-3 overall, 1-3 ACC) look to snap a three-game losing streak in front of their home fans.

The Panthers have yet to beat a team from a Power Five conference. They needed overtime to beat their opening-day FCS opponent, Youngstown State, in what is typically a warm-up game. Their other win came against an unimpressive Rice team in week five.

Pitt enters this matchup as a team lacking an identity. Gone are the days of James Conner, Nathan Peterman and the high-scoring Panther offense that often bailed out its mediocre defense.

The Panthers’ defense this year ranks well in the bottom half of every major statistical category. Of 130 teams, Pitt comes in at 98th in points allowed per game, giving up an average of 31.4. The Panthers’ 111th-ranked pass defense continues to be one of the nation’s worst, allowing an average of 268.6 yards per game through the air.

Their opponent, Duke, boasts a defense that prides itself on harassing the opposing quarterback. The Blue Devils rank eighth nationally in sacks with 21 and second in interceptions with 12 — four of which they have returned for touchdowns.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils do not present the same challenge as NC State. Sophomore quarterback Daniel Jones — who has thrown for 1,398 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions — leads an average passing game. The balanced rushing attack is split between senior Shaun Wilson with 506 yards and first-year Brittain Brown with 470 yards.

Duke sophomore cornerback Mark Gilbert, whose four interceptions are good for fifth best in college football, could pose a serious threat to DiNucci’s passing game. Gilbert utilizes his aggressive man coverage and ball-hawking ability to target the best opposing receiver and make him obsolete.

For the Panthers, their offensive unit has been defined by its quarterback controversy. Head coach Pat Narduzzi has used two quarterbacks in every game this season. When redshirt senior quarterback Max Browne suffered a season-ending injury against Syracuse in week six, the job appeared to be solely in the hands of redshirt sophomore Ben DiNucci.

DiNucci performed admirably in his first game as full-fledged starter against No. 20 NC State, going 13 for 19 with 114 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He threw an interception to open the second half, but had put the team in a competitive position, down 21-14 with the ball and 2:32 remaining in the third quarter.

Narduzzi then made the puzzling decision to thrust first-year quarterback Kenny Pickett into the game. Pickett went five for 13 with 61 yards, and NC State outscored the Panthers 14-3. Pitt trailed by 18 points by the time DiNucci reentered the game for the team’s final junk-time drive.

Narduzzi indicated in his press conference that the quarterback situation for this week will continue to be handled like any other position — if you perform poorly, you will be subbed out. DiNucci has been named the starter, but if he shows signs of struggle, you can expect to see Pickett enter the game at some point.

Whoever steps under center for the Panthers will not receive much assistance from Pitt’s 114th-ranked rushing attack, which averages a paltry 113.7 yards per game. The Panthers will have a tough time gaining yardage on the ground against Duke’s 16th-ranked rush defense  — which gives up an average of 108 yards per game.

Despite being outmatched on paper, the Panthers have fared well against the Blue Devils recently, blowing them out in the teams’ last two matchups — 31-13 on the road in 2015 and 56-14 at home in 2016. But it looks as though that will change this year.

PREDICTION: Despite their best efforts, the Panthers simply lack talent on both sides of the ball. Against Duke’s stout defense, Pitt is unlikely to have much success driving down the field. Instead, they will need to generate big plays — likely to come from junior wide receiver Quadree Henderson — if they hope to emerge victorious.

Duke will employ its aggressive defensive scheme to force multiple turnovers and give their offense prime field position. Sporadic big plays from the offense and field goals from first-year kicker Alex Kessman will keep Pitt in the game, but won’t be enough for a Panther win.

Duke: 27, Pitt: 20

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