Duke Chronicle provides context for Pitt’s saturday matchup against Blue Devils

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Duke Chronicle provides context for Pitt’s saturday matchup against Blue Devils

Tyler Boyd will be a tough matchup for Duke on Saturday.
Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Tyler Boyd will be a tough matchup for Duke on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Tyler Boyd will be a tough matchup for Duke on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

Tyler Boyd will be a tough matchup for Duke on Saturday. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

By Dan Sostek / Sports Editor

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The Pitt football team is heading down to Durham, where they will face a Duke team fresh off of a 66-31 drubbing to their rival North Carolina Tar Heels.

With the Panthers taking the Blue Devils on Saturday at noon, The Pitt News reached out to Duke Chronicle sports editor Ryan Hoerger to provide some context regarding this year’s Duke game. Hoerger discussed the Blue Devils’ quarterback Thomas Sirk, the team’s strong defense and how Duke has replaced the production of former star wideout Jamison Crowder.

TPN: Regardless of the controversial ending against Miami, Duke hasn’t looked nearly as impressive as it did early on in the season. What have been some contributing factors to these struggles?

DC: A big part of it has to do with the way Duke’s schedule played out. The Blue Devils loaded up on early, very winnable non-conference games, and as a result, they looked great against the likes of Tulane and Army — who have a combined record of 4-14 — and FCS foe N.C. Central. Now that Duke is in the thick of ACC play, Thomas Sirk and company are encountering defenses with a little more resistance, and the defensive unit has to deal with elite speed. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, that was on full display Saturday against North Carolina as the Tar Heels churned out big play after big play to get to the ugly 66-31 final.

TPN: Did people around Duke expect Thomas Sirk’s transition from situational quarterback to full-time starter to go this smoothly? Are there still any areas he needs improvement on?

DC: I’m not sure everyone here in Durham would call the transition for Sirk smooth. He’s had some great moments — his play throughout the four overtime game at Virginia and those two late-fourth quarter drives against Miami come to mind — but there have also been growing pains. A popular complaint among all the offensive coordinators in the stands is that Sirk rushes through his progressions too quickly and finds his checkdown receiver without taking a good look farther downfield. The numbers bear this out — Duke runs a lot of short pass plays to free up receivers and running backs in space, but Sirk has seemed to be dialing up more shots downfield of late. As a running quarterback, he’s a true weapon, churning out both long, explosive runs and short-yardage chunks through contact to lead Duke in rushing.

TPN: Up until Saturday’s game against UNC, Duke’s defense has been formidable, with Jeremy Cash leading the way. Was the unit’s success this season expected, or have they overachieved? What have they been doing well?

DC: Duke’s secondary was expected to be the strength of the entire team because of its returning experience. The Blue Devils brought back all five defensive backs from last year’s squad, and Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards have flown all over the field to help compensate for the torn ACL suffered by cornerback Bryon Fields before the season. Up front, Duke faced several question marks after the loss of many of its linemen, but the unit, though undersized, has performed well up until last Saturday. The Blue Devils entered Chapel Hill as a top-10 defense nationally, thanks in large part to their ability to stop the run. Cash and Edwards play a big role in that — Cash especially will play up near the line of scrimmage to either blitz or bring down runners in the backfield.

TPN: How has Duke filled the shoes of Jamison Crowder? Has it been more of a committee approach in terms of replacing his production?

DC: Duke lost both the dynamic Crowder and a big target in Issac Blakeney, and Sirk has developed a by-committee approach to replacing the yardage those two put up a season ago. Senior Max McCaffrey has been the Blue Devils’ most reliable target this season, but redshirt junior Anthony Nash has come on strong in the middle part of the year. Freshman T.J. Rahming is projected to turn into the next Crowder — he is similarly shifty in space at 5 feet 10 inches and wears Crowder’s old No. 3 — and has turned in explosive plays at times, as has junior Johnell Barnes. Duke also has a trio of pass-catching tight ends in Braxton Deaver, Erich Schneider and David Reeves, and offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery does a good job of utilizing running backs Shaquille Powell and Shaun Wilson as safety valves out of the backfield.

TPN: What would you identify as Saturday’s most crucial player matchup and why?

DC: Duke clearly struggled to slow down speedy North Carolina wide receivers Bug Howard, Mack Hollins and Ryan Switzer last weekend, and things do not get any easier this week in trying to contain Tyler Boyd. I think Saturday’s game may come down to how well Blue Devil cornerbacks Breon Borders and Deondre Singleton can make life difficult for Boyd. In the teams’ first meeting as ACC opponents two years ago, Boyd and Devin Street combined for 320 yards and five scores in a Panther win, but Boyd was “held” to 140 without a score in last year’s Blue Devil win. Even without James Conner, a big day by Boyd could be enough to tip the scales in Pittsburgh’s favor.

TPN: What is your prediction for Saturday and why?

DC: Both teams are coming off fairly lopsided losses, but the Blue Devils were absolutely embarrassed against their archrivals. I think Duke comes out eager to wipe that taste out of its mouth and pulls out a narrow victory in another high-scoring affair between the Blue Devils and Panthers on Senior Day in Durham.

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