If Duke was the football program we thought the Blue Devils had grown into, Saturday’s game with Pittsburgh would have been sealed as the fourth quarter began.
That it didn’t, and the Blue Devils slumped out of Wallace Wade Stadium saddled with a 24-17 loss and a four-game losing streak tell us disturbing things about Duke football.
Duke had a 10-point lead, and its opponent, a team that had yet to beat a power 5 conference team this season, was backed up on its own 8.
Instead of putting Pittsburgh away, Duke allowed Panthers running back Darrin Hall to get free for a 92-yard touchdown run that flipped momentum to his team for good.
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It was enough to leave Duke’s David Cutcliffe, the folksy coach who has taken the once-dead program to multiple bowl games, spitting mad.
“You may be playing the play that’s going to win or lose the game every down,” an angry Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think I saw us playing that down like that. You get a team in that circumstance where we cover a kickoff that well after a score to go up by 10. You need to play that play like it’s going to decide the game. Without seeing it (on tape) I know we didn’t do that.”
That play, which allowed Pitt to cut Duke’s lead to 17-14 entering the fourth quarter, was one of many examples of the Blue Devils not being a sound or good football team.
Duke had three offsides penalties on special teams against Pittsburgh’s kicking game.
The Blue Devils converted only three of 10 third downs.
In addition to his 92-yard touchdown run, Hall also had a 79-yard touchdown run where he was untouched after crossing the line of scrimmage.
“Well-coached football teams don’t do the things that you are asking about,” Cutcliffe said. “They don’t. I take full responsibility.”
So now here is Duke, which was once 4-0 and riding high after beating arch-rival North Carolina, 27-17 in Chapel Hill on Sept. 22, back at the .500 mark. The Blue Devils (4-4) have needed two wins to ensure bowl eligibility for a month, losing four games in a row.
The struggling offense has been the cause of concern for most of the season. That didn’t change in the loss to Pitt, but the offense isn’t alone in its problems.
Duke’s defense entered the game No. 3 in the ACC and No. 21 in the nation by allowing teams to gain just 3.36 yards per carry. Pittsburgh rushed for 336 yards on 57 carries Saturday, gaining 5.89 yards per carry.
“Very frustrating,” Duke linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “We practiced that every day. For it to happen is not something we want. For it to happen today, it resulted in a loss. They are very good backs. If you give them a little bit of space, they are going to break away.”
Hall’s long touchdown runs inflated that average, of course. But Duke was unable to stop Pitt on a 55-yard drive that erased 6:19 off the game clock in the fourth quarter and resulted in a field goal.
On special teams, in addition to the three offsides penalties, kicker Austin Parker missed two field goals.
His miss from 36 yards out with 8:00 to play and Pitt up 21-17 proved as decisive as Hall’s 92-yard touchdown run.
The Blue Devils, trailing by four, moved to the Pitt 19 when Daniel Jones completed two 22-yard passes to T.J. Rahming and a 12-yard strike to Chris Taylor. The drive stalled, thanks to Jones losing 13 yards on a sack, but Pitt bailed Duke out with a pass-interference penalty on fourth-and-23.
Given a second chance to take the lead with first down from the 19, Duke instead lost a yard on three Jones passes.
In addition to Jones throwing touchdown passes covering 58 yards to Shaun Wilson and 39 yards to Rahming, the Blue Devils drove into Pitt territory three other times in the second half but scored no points on those possessions.
Duke still needs two wins, now in its final four games, to reach the six needed for bowl eligibility. A difficult trip to Virginia Tech is up next, followed by a much-needed open week.
Duke closes with games at Army on Nov. 11, at home with Georgia Tech on Nov. 18 and at Wake Forest on Nov. 25.
All four of those teams entered Saturday’s games with winning records so Duke’s path is treacherous.
As angry as Cutcliffe was on Saturday, he also sounded determined to get this team out of its funk. It must if it wants to play a December postseason game for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
“We need more from me,” Cutcliffe snapped. “They are getting ready to get a whole lot of me. Just a whole lot of me. Those that know me know what I mean.”