Preview | Pitt football prepares to take on Duke in battle of potent rushing games


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Quarterback Kedon Slovis (9) passes the ball off to junior running back Israel Abanikanda (2) during Pitt football’s game against Rhode Island on Sept. 24.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

After rattling off a couple of wins over ACC opponents, Pitt looks to extend its conference win streak to three games when they take on Duke this Saturday at Acrisure Stadium.

Pitt is currently on a six-game win streak against the Blue Devils.

Coming off of a 24-7 victory over Virginia Tech, Duke is looking to win eight games for the first time since 2018. First-year head coach Mike Elko has performed admirably thus far, turning the program around after back-to-back nine loss seasons. Pitt is hoping to wrap up its home schedule on a high note following a 37-7 win over Virginia.

Here’s what to watch for in the game on Saturday.

Clash of two potent rushing attacks 

This matchup features two of the best rushing attacks the ACC has to offer.

The Blue Devils rank No. 2 in the ACC in rushing, while the Panthers aren’t too far behind, sitting at No. 5. 

Both teams have clear identities — they want to run the football and it’s not a secret. Duke averages a whopping 203.8 yards per game on the ground. The Blue Devils, like Pitt, have a stable of talented running backs.

Junior running back Jordan Waters leads the way for Duke with eight touchdowns this season. Sophomore Jaquez Moore and junior Jaylen Coleman contribute to the attack as well, combining for eight touchdowns on the ground as well. 

What takes the Blue Devils rushing attack to another level is the dual-threat ability of sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard. Leonard ranks No. 2 on the team in carries and has the most rushing touchdowns out of anybody on the roster. Leonard is no slouch throwing the football either — the sophomore is up to 2,113 yards and 15 touchdowns on the season.

Leonard has rushed for six touchdowns in his last four games. 

Pitt ranks No. 16 in the nation against the run while Duke checks in at No. 36. Something has to give.

Winning on third down

The major advantage the Panthers have coming into this game is that they get off of the field on third downs. 

Pitt is No. 1 in the ACC in opponent third down conversions

Duke, surprisingly, is dead last in the ACC in the same category. Pitt and Duke are neck and neck in third down conversions offensively. Pitt converts 39.9% of the time while the Blue Devils convert on 41.7% of third down attempts.

The Panthers need to win on third downs — on both sides of the ball — to come away with a victory.

Both teams will establish the running game, but this contest will boil down to which quarterback makes the most plays through the air when their team needs it on third down. If Pitt can’t win on third down, the offense will chase points which isn’t a recipe for success for any team, let alone this Pitt team.

It’s key that the Panthers create third down and short situations for their offense. 

Who will win the turnover battle?

This aspect of the game is where Duke thrives.

The Blue Devils are top 10 in the country in both turnovers gained and turnovers lost, as they rank No. 3 in the nation in turnover margin. Pitt is on the opposite end of the spectrum — sitting at No. 102

Pitt can’t afford to make mistakes in this game because Duke will make them pay. The Panthers did a good job taking care of the football against Virginia. Pitt senior quarterback Kedon Slovis didn’t turnover the ball a single time against the Cavaliers.

The Blue Devils haven’t lost the turnover margin in a game in over a month. Since their loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 8, Duke is plus-seven in the turnover margin. Pitt, on the other hand, lost the turnover margin in three straight games up until their win over Virginia. 

Slovis needs to continue to take care of the football for Pitt to win this game. The USC transfer threw five interceptions in the five games prior to his 208 yard performance against the Cavaliers. 

Prediction — Pitt wins 31-27

This feels like a game that is close throughout. The margin for error is slim with both teams having a relatively equal skill set. 

Both teams will have success on the ground. This game comes down to whichever quarterback takes better care of the football and hits a few big passes down the field. 

The Panthers will continue to prioritize the deep passing game out of play action. I think they’ll hit on a few deep passes that will make the difference in the game. 

Pitt’s defense ranks No. 1 in the country in sacks. Duke has only given up 13 sacks this season, so it’s extremely unlikely that the Panthers have a repeat of the past two weeks — where they combined for 14 sacks. But they should get consistent pressure on Leonard throughout the game. 

Pitt’s clash with Duke will kickoff at noon. The game will air on ACC Network.