Pitt endures late push from Blue Devils, defeats Duke 28-26 on Senior Day


Hannah Wilson | Senior Staff Photographer

Redshirt senior defensive back Erick Hallett II (31) stands on the field surrounded by pigeons during Pitt football’s game against Duke Saturday afternoon at Acrisure Stadium.

By Frankie Richetti, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt fans braved the cold on Saturday to celebrate the Panthers senior class on Senior Day at Acrisure Stadium. 

Panthers seniors soaked up the applause from fans as they made their way out of the tunnel for one final time, but quickly shifted their focus to winning their third straight ACC contest.

Pitt sent it’s seniors out on a high-note with a 28-26 win over Duke. The Panthers defense led the way, stopping Duke in crucial points throughout the game — most notably on the Blue Devils two-point conversion attempt to tie the game with under a minute remaining. Pitt has now won three straight games. 

Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said he was immensely proud of his seniors and their performance against Duke. 

“I thought a lot of our seniors played maybe the best game they have played,” Narduzzi said.

After forcing a quick three-and-out to open the game, Pitt quickly marched into Duke territory. The drive stalled out shortly after and the Panthers settled for a 47-yard field goal attempt which sophomore kicker Ben Sauls converted to give Pitt an early 3-0 lead. In a matchup between two of the top rushing teams in the conference, both teams came out throwing the ball early.

Duke — the No. 2 rushing offense in the ACC — returned to the ground game on their next drive but Pitt held strong forcing another punt. The Panthers looked to establish their rushing attack on the ensuing drive and did just that. Junior running back Israel Abanikanda carried the ball three times for 22 yards — before a dropped pass halted momentum. 

Both teams struggled to get anything going offensively but a poor punt from the Panthers aided the Blue Devils offense. After starting the drive in Pitt territory, it took Duke just five plays to score the first touchdown of the game. Sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard found senior receiver Jalon Calhoun on a 28-yard strike to give Duke a 7-3 lead. 

Pitt’s offense still couldn’t find a rhythm and had to settle for a second straight punt. But the Blue Devils’ return man muffed the punt and Pitt recovered the ball at the six yard-line, giving the Panthers life. Abanikanda found the endzone on the next play from scrimmage and all of a sudden, Pitt had a 10-7 lead.

Pitt racked up just 68 yards of offense in the second quarter before senior quarterback Kedon Slovis found senior receiver Jared Wayne on a 35-yard pitch and catch to set the Panthers up in Duke territory. The Panthers couldn’t sustain the drive and settled for another field goal attempt. Sauls converted again — this time from 51 yards out — giving Pitt a 13-7 lead. 

Special teams continued to play a pivotal role in the game. Pitt forced another Duke punt but committed a roughing the punter penalty, extending the Blue Devils drive. Leonard connected with sophomore wide out Jordan Moore on a 27-yard completion to put the Blue Devils in the red zone for the first time in the game. Leonard’s quarterback sneak a few plays later put Duke ahead 14-13. 

Pitt’s passing game finally came to life right before the half. The Panthers marched down the field on a 10 play, 73 yard drive that was capped off with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Slovis to Wayne. Pitt entered the locker room with a 20-14 lead. 

Pitt picked up where it left off to open the second half. On the first play, Slovis found Wayne for 19 yards. The Panthers used their passing game to open up the run game as Aabnikanda broke off a 26-yard rush. 

But Pitt couldn’t turn the drive into any points as Duke picked off Slovis, giving Duke the momentum. Pitt’s defense responded, forcing a punt before Slovis threw another interception on the ensuing Panthers drive. 

Slovis said the offense’s inability to put points on the board in the second half came down to a lack of execution in the passing game.

“We just have to execute better,” Slovis said. “The other thing is we have to give coach the confidence to keep calling it too.”

The Blue Devils went for it on fourth down at the Pitt 32 yard-line and it looked like they were about to take the lead with a touchdown pass after a breakdown in coverage. But Pitt took over on downs after the ball slipped through the hands of junior wide receiver Jontavis Robertson.  Duke couldn’t capitalize on either of Slovis’ miscues and entered the fourth quarter still trailing by six. 

Pitt’s offense still couldn’t extend its lead and settled for another punt. The defense decided to take matters into their own hands. Pitt senior defensive lineman David Green forced a fumble and junior safety Brandon Hill scooped it up and returned the fumble for a 30-yard touchdown. Pitt’s lead climbed to 14 after Abanikanda scored on a two-point conversion attempt.

Hill said preparing for that exact situation in practice helped him score on the momentum shifting touchdown.

“We always practice scoop and score in practice,” Hill said. “I just remembered what we do in practice and seen my blockers down the sideline and got in the end zone, made a play.” 

Duke didn’t go away easily though. Leonard found sophomore receiver Jordan Moore on a 49-yard touchdown reception. Unlike the last drive, Duke took advantage of the Panthers poor coverage in the secondary and cut the deficit to eight points following a missed two-point conversion. 

Abanikanda continued his big day, eclipsing 100 yards rushing for the eighth time this season, on the Panthers next drive. But the Panthers couldn’t put together a sustained drive, an issue that plagued them throughout the game. Duke had a chance to tie the game on their next drive.

On fourth down and five, with just under four minutes remaining, Pitt’s defense held strong once again. The Pitt offense had an opportunity to put the game away with a few first downs but they went three-and-out and gave the ball back to the Blue Devils.

Pitt’s special teams unit once again fell flat, a recurring issue in 2022. First-year punter Caleb Junko fumbled the snap at Pitt’s own 30 yard-line, and Duke recovered deep inside of Pitt territory. Pitt’s defense once again had the game in its hands. Narduzzi said the woes at punter are inexcusable.

“We’ve rotated through three punters, really felt like Junko was the guy,” Narduzzi said. “It just can’t happen.”

Once again they delivered. 

Pitt’s defense showed what “bend but don’t break” is all about on the final Duke drive of the game. On fourth down at the Pitt 19 yard-line, Leonard found junior receiver Jaylen Coleman for an improbable touchdown, but Duke still needed a two point conversion to tie the game and send it to overtime.

But the Panthers defense snuffed out a double-reverse play and sealed a two point win. Pitt senior safety Erick Hallett said he’s proud of the way the team has bounced back after a string of disappointing performance last month. 

“Obviously, October didn’t go how we wanted it to go,” Hallett said. “But to see the guys bounce back, to see the guys not lose faith in each other, to come together after that type of adversity, that’s something you want to see from a team.”

Pitt will hit the road to take on the Miami Hurricanes for their regular season finale next week. The game against the Hurricanes will kickoff at 8 p.m. and will air on ACC Network.