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Pitt defeats Duke for seventh win, 31-13

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Many expected a close game with the 6-3 Panthers set to clash with a 6-3 Duke team. But at the end of the day, Pitt left Durham, North Carolina with a comfortable 31-13 win over the Blue Devils. The win keeps the Panthers' slim hopes at winning the Coastal Division alive.

Pitt used another strong second half to give the team its seventh victory of the season. But unlike the past two games, they didn't allow themselves to fall behind early. The Panthers went into halftime tied with Duke and the big second half made for a relatively easy victory.

The game, for me, started off pretty slowly. Pitt looked like the better team, but couldn't pull away. And while Duke moved the ball in that first half (I'll get to that in a little bit), I don't know - I just wasn't all that impressed. Ever watch a team and come away unimpressed even in the midst of a close game? I can't quite put my finger on it but they just didn't pass the eye test for me. I got the notion that if Pitt turned things up a notch, it was a game they should win. To lose it would have been the height of frustration.

To be fair here, the Blue Devils were, of course, without starting quarterback Thomas Sirk, who was questionable heading into the game. The ombudsman in me has to consider that. However, Duke also didn't get a terrible day from backup Parker Boehme, either. Boehme did toss one interception, but was mostly pretty good, finishing 23-43 on the day for 248 yards. Sirk is a dual threat quarterback, but Boehme did some damage with his legs, too, picking up 80 yards and a rushing score. In all, it gets very hard to make the case that Duke lost solely because they didn't have Sirk in there. I have no doubt that the game could have been a little closer with Sirk in there, but his loss was hardly the reason Pitt won today.

On offense, I really liked what Nate Peterman did today and he's a guy that just has gotten better for the most part. He has struggled and there's no question that he's not a perfect quarterback. But he again had a pretty mistake free day on his way to three passing touchdowns. Again, under 200 yards passing and he's not going to sling the ball all over the field. But man, he can really make some incredible throws at times. He hit several receivers on picture perfect passes and the lob in the end zone to Dontez Ford in the second half was just really, really good. He's thrown only a single interception in his last seven games - and that was against a very good Notre Dame defense last weekend. The Peterman switch at the beginning drew a lot of criticism (including from me) but there's no question now that he has made it pay off.

I'm still not sure I'm in the Nate Peterman is a 'very' good quarterback - but he's more than doing his job at this point. I'm very pleased with how he's playing and he's doing more than simply managing games.

Pitt also got some help from Zach Challingsworth of all people, who had two incredible catches, including one that went for his first career score. On the day, he had three grabs and 57 yards - leading the team there in both. Who knew that he was capable of those kinds of receptions? It will be fun to watch how much he's utilized after this. Dontez Ford had stepped up and made some plays but with Tyler Boyd presumably gone after this year, Challingsworth will have a chance next season to get more onto the field.

Boyd had only three catches for 38 yards but did a ton of damage on the ground with eight carries for 79 yards. Also on the ground, it was mostly the Qadree Ollison show among the backs. He had a strong day with 26 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown. All told, I was glad to see Pitt get back to running the ball. If you'll remember, that was one of the points I made after last week. Taking out the quarterback, Pitt had 23 rushes last week. They had 25 against North Carolina. Today they had 54. Some of that was running late with the lead, but Pitt did a better job of utilizing the ground game.

Also on offense, we continued to see a little of the Jordan Whitehead show. Whitehead had only four carries, but is so electric when in there and always seems to make something happen. I don't want him to get burned out, but I'm in the camp that wants to see more of him on that side of the ball. I said the same thing last week, but it comes down to the fact that he's too good and too athletic not to be out there more. It's not necessary to use him on every drive, but there certainly is an argument for an increased workload.

Speaking of Whitehead, he also got his first interception on defense today. Whitehead didn't have a great game back there and made some mistakes, including a pass interference call and a missed tackle or two. It also wasn't highly mentioned, but he had a chance to make a play on the first Duke touchdown where Pitt gave up a long pass play. He was streaking across the field, but ran behind and past the receiver who made a catch and nearly scored the touchdown. But overall, another solid effort from him. I don't know where he finished in tackles on the day just yet, but as always, he was in there on many stops.

And for as nice of a job that the offense did, particularly in the second half, it was really the defense that won the game. The Panthers continue to make adjustments at halftime and outperform their counterparts in the second half. Pitt gave up only three points to Duke after halftime - and that was a long 51-yard field goal that barely squeaked through the uprights. Whatever it is the coaches do to figure things out, it almost always works.

Keep in mind, too, that this was a Duke team that scored at least 30 points in six of their nine games this year. They had 27 in a seventh, against Miami. They scored 92 in their first two games and 44 against Army. Again, missing Sirk surely had something to do with today's contest, but keeping them to only 13 was an excellent showing.

It's not only scoring, either. Pitt just didn't give up yardage in the second half. The Blue Devils at least moved the ball in the first two quarters, but that came to an end in the last two. Pitt gave up only 88 yards of offense in the 3rd and 4th quarters compared to 293 in the first. Outside of one drive where Duke moved the ball 53 yards in the second half, they couldn't do anything, really. And even that one decent drive resulted in Whitehead's interception, so the defense even did their job there.

This was really a game Pitt needed to have. It finally gives the Panthers a win over a team above .500 and also is some indication that they are a pretty good team. At 7-3, Pitt hasn't been able to beat the best teams on their schedule. But they've also not suffered an embarrassing loss, either, and have defeated a few quality opponents. Handling Duke the way they did today, on the road no less, offers more proof that this is a good team.

Then there's the whole seventh win factor. Obviously, that's not really the goal here, but it's nice to see Pitt get past the 6-win plateau. This is the most regular season victories Pitt has had since 2010 and for those officially 'officially' needing to see the tangible evidence that the Pat Narduzzi era has things in the right direction, well, here you go.

And, hey, don't look now but the Panthers have an outside shot at a 10-win season.

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