Prediction: Pitt football to right the ship against Duke


Thomas J. Yang

The Panther’s running game, led by senior running back Qadree Ollison (30), ranks at 45th in the nation with an average of 183.5 yards per game. The team’s passing game, led by sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett (8), lags behind, ranking 118th with 142 yards per game. (Photo by Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor)

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Through seven games this football season, Pitt has been a team full of paradoxes.

The Panthers got blown out by at least 30 points by their first two ranked opponents, only to lead almost all game and come within five points of beating No. 5 Notre Dame. They lost to one of the ACC’s worst teams in North Carolina, then beat one of the conference’s more formidable foes in Syracuse. They lost their best defensive player — senior linebacker Quintin Wirginis — then proceeded to turn in their best defensive performance of the season.

This is more or less par for the course for a Pitt football program that has struggled to crack the top 25 the past few seasons, yet seems to step up for at least one major upset per year. When the mantra of a team seems to be “expect the unexpected — and even then, we’ll still do the opposite of your expectation,” it deems most predictive models useless.

With that being said, there is concrete evidence — both recent and historical — that can lead us to safely believe that the Panthers will emerge victorious at Heinz Field this Saturday over their next opponent, the Duke Blue Devils.

For starters, there is a specific brand of opponent that Pitt has had surprisingly consistent success with this season — decent teams that aren’t spectacular, but aren’t awful. With the exception of Albany, a lower-level team that served as a warmup game in which a Panther victory was all but guaranteed, two of Pitt’s three victories came against teams like this. The first was a 24-19 win over Georgia Tech — a solid program with a history of hovering around .500 or better — and the second was a 44-37 win over an average Syracuse team that sits right in the middle of the ACC Atlantic standings.

Duke is very comparable to these two teams — they’re an in-conference opponent with an adequate 5-2 overall record but an unremarkable 1-2 record in the ACC. In other words, they fall right into Pitt’s ideal wheelhouse for an opposing team.

You can also look at it from the angle of which teams the Panthers have struggled with. Of their four losses, three came to out-of-conference foes ranked 17th or better — Penn State, Central Florida and Notre Dame — and the fourth came to the last-place team in the ACC Coastal, North Carolina. It’s as though Pitt’s opponent has to be right in that aforementioned “ideal wheelhouse” — not so good that they can outmatch the Panthers with superior talent, but not bad enough so that the Panthers get cocky and let their guard down. Duke, like Syracuse and Georgia Tech, is accomplished enough to garner respect, but not talented enough to overpower Pitt in a head-to-head battle.

There’s also the fact that Pitt has yet to lose to Duke in the Narduzzi era. Since 2015, the Panthers have won all three matchups by margins of 31-13, 56-14 and 24-17. In the same way that North Carolina seems to have Pitt’s number — the Panthers have lost their past six meetings with the Tar Heels — the Panthers simply have the Blue Devils’ number.

Both teams will enter this Saturday’s contest having dropped two of their last three games. But unlike Duke, Pitt’s losses came to two of the toughest teams in the nation, No. 10 UCF and No. 3 Notre Dame. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have yet to face a ranked team this season. Their most recent losses came to Virginia Tech, 31-14, and the University of Virginia, 28-14.

As evidenced by those two scores, Duke has struggled to put points on the board. Its offense ranks 110th out of 130 teams in yards per game, averaging 338.7. Coincidentally, Pitt sits just seven spots beneath them, currently sporting the nation’s 14th-worst offense with 325.5 yards per game. Don’t expect to see a dazzling display of offensive fireworks on Saturday.

The biggest reason for Pitt’s offensive woes has been its pitiful passing attack, which ranks 118th nationally with 142 yards per game. Sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett has yet to live up to the offseason hype, often looking uncomfortable in the pocket and finding himself handcuffed by offensive coordinator Shawn Watson’s overly conservative playbook. Luckily, Pickett won’t have to deal with Duke junior cornerback Mark Gilbert — a 2017 All-ACC player with six interceptions — who suffered a season-ending hip injury Sept. 8.

The Blue Devils have likewise dealt with some quarterback issues of their own. Junior and incumbent starter Daniel Jones went down with a fractured clavicle Sept. 8, forcing him to miss two games. After receiving surgery to repair the injury, he hasn’t looked the same since returning Sept. 29, throwing for more touchdowns than interceptions only once, against Georgia Tech.

The matchup to look for will be Jones against Pitt’s defense, which lost senior middle linebacker, leading tackler and captain Quintin Wirginis to a season-ending knee injury during practice Oct. 9, but turned around and held a high-caliber Notre Dame offense to just 19 points the following week. If the Panthers can muster that sort of production again, then Jones & Co. will be hard-pressed to break the 20-point barrier — especially after scoring just 14 in two of the last three weeks.

Another matchup to look for will be Pitt’s greatest offensive weapon — its rushing attack — against Duke’s defense. The Panthers boast a running game that ranks in the top half of the nation, sitting at 45th with 183.5 yards per game. The attack is led by senior Qadree Ollison, whose 646 rushing yards rank third in the ACC, and complemented by fellow senior Darrin Hall, whose 6.6 yards per carry rank fifth in the conference. The duo should be able to gain ground against the Blue Devil defense — like last year, when Hall rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns — allowing Pitt’s offense to dictate the tempo throughout the game.

PREDICTION: Despite the Panthers’ inefficient passing attack, Ollison and Hall will carry the load against an average Blue Devil defense. Meanwhile, Pitt’s defense will do just enough to limit Duke’s production in what figures to be a low-scoring affair for both teams. The Panthers will have utilized their bye week for extra rest and preparation and when the dust clears, they’ll emerge victorious for the fourth consecutive year. If they do lose, it will be for no other reason than because they were expected to win.

Pitt: 26, Duke: 20

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