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Pitt has crucial matchup against Duke on Saturday

Pittsburgh v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

After a week off, Pitt football gets back on the field this weekend with an important matchup against Duke.

The Blue Devils haven’t been completely untested but they, like most teams, haven’t played the level of competition that Pitt has. The best team Duke has faced this season was Virginia Tech and they were beaten soundly, 31-14. Their best wins have come against 4-3 Baylor and Northwestern teams. At 5-2, Duke has looked pretty good. But I sort of equate it to something I said earlier in the year against Syracuse. If you switch the opponents Pitt has played with the opponents Duke has faced, the records would probably look different.

None of that is to suggest that Duke is a pushover for Pitt, or even a team that they should beat. The Blue Devils are pretty good - the question is how good.

Duke is 5-2 but, interestingly, Pitt is in a better position than the Blue Devils in terms of winning the conference. Duke already blew its shot against Division leader Virginia Tech and, after losing to Virginia this past weekend, is essentially 2 12 games out of first place. Pitt, meanwhile, is only 3-4 but is 2-1 in the conference and only 12 game back with a game still to come against Virginia Tech. That’s not to suggest that Pitt is really a Coastal Division contender at this stage. But Duke’s chances of winning the Division are basically gone while the Panthers are still technically in it.

Offensively, no one player really jumps off the page at you from Duke’s team. Quarterback Daniel Jones has been solid but only averaging a little more than 200 yards per game. The last three games, he’s also thrown four interceptions. On the ground, Duke has a two-headed monster with Deon Jackson and Brittain Brown. But that duo (689 yards and seven touchdowns) is bested by Pitt’s Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, which have ten touchdowns and have already topped 1,000 yards. The Duke receivers have done more than Pitt’s guys have, but they’re led by T.J. Rahming and Johnathan Lloyd, who each have only about 300 yards to their name. Solid players but not guys that have had monster games this season.

It’s on defense that is where Duke has won their games. The Blue Devils gave up only seven points on the road to Northwestern. They held Georgia Tech to only 14 on the road. They held Army to 14. They held North Carolina Central to 13. Add it all up and they’ve given up only 17.7 yards per game, which is 20th in the nation. They’ve allowed 30 points only one time this season and that was when they gave up 31 to the Hokies.

One of the things that Duke has excelled in is Red Zone defense. Coming into this weekend, they were third in the nation in that category, giving up scores only 64% of the time.

Is Duke really that good defensively? Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think part of what they’ve been able to accomplish is in part due to the schedule. But there’s no doubt that they’ve done a nice job on that side of the ball. If Pitt is going to win, they may need a great performance defensively themselves because I don’t know that they’re going to score a ton of points - particularly with the passing game struggling as much as it has.

From Pitt’s vantage point, the secondary has clearly looked better. It’s important for them to continue that momentum into this game. Last time out, they proved they can be effective as they gave Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book fits and I think the group is legitimately getting better. Book had looked great before that game and the Panthers really kept him guessing with a series of blitzes as they held him to 264 yards while forcing two picks. They performed a similar trick on Eric Dungey the week before that, keeping him to 195 yards and also forcing two interceptions. Duke’s passing game hasn’t looked stellar and it’s really important for the growth of the secondary to put together another nice game.

Just getting away from the pure statistical stuff, this is just one of those games you feel like Pitt has to have if they’re going to ever start separating themselves in the conference. That’s no offense to a program like Duke who is very much trying to do the same thing. And Duke is the slight favorite as of right now. But the reality is, if you’re not Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, and when they’re not rebuilding, Florida State, you’ve got to try to be the next best thing. Pitt has to beat the Syracuse, the Dukes, the Georgia Techs if they want to start making more waves in the conference. At home, especially, these are must win games.

Even if you don’t buy the argument that Pitt can threaten for the Division crown (and I’m not sure I do, either), this game feels like a must for even achieving the smaller goal this season of reaching a bowl game. Pitt needs three more victories and still has Virginia Tech and Miami on the schedule in addition to what is a surging Virginia team. Similar to what I said about the Syracuse game, if you’re going to do much of anything this season, you pretty much have to have this one.

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