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Pitt holds on for a crazy 33-30 win at Duke

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier in the day, I watched the Miami-Virginia Tech game, which was absolutely bonkers. I didn’t expect that kind of drama in the Pitt game but I clearly had that one wrong.

At the end of all of it, Pitt held on for a 33-30 win at Duke on the road. The victory moves the Panthers to 4-2 while dropping Duke to 3-2. More importantly, the win helps keep Pitt alive in the race for the ACC Coastal Division, even though they still have ground to make up on Virginia.

Pitt looked like they were cruising in this one. Scratch that — they were cruising. A variety of mistakes put Duke behind early and the Panthers would take control with a 19-3 halftime lead and then go up 26-3 in the third quarter. Duke looked miserable, out of sync, and more importantly than that, the Panthers were playing lights out defensively. There just looked like no conceivable way Duke could come back. Pitt forced a grand total of six turnovers and some early mistakes were the reason the team got that large lead.

As I wrote in the preview, the one thing Pitt needed to do was find a way to stop quarterback Quentin Harris, who had been playing out of his mind. Harris was only 18/43 for 165 yards and threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He had some moments in the second half but Pitt’s defense did its job on him.

At that point, Duke needed a miracle to get back into it. And that’s what they got.

The first gift was a botched punt by Paris Ford who, for some reason, was trying to field a ball on his own 5-yard line. Duke punched that one in with ease. The Blue Devils then scored another touchdown after a fumble by Dontavious Butler-Jenkins and got a two-point conversion, making the lead only 26-18. Kenny Pickett gifted the Blue Devils yet another opportunity with an interception on the ensuing drive, giving Duke the ball on Pitt’s side of the field. They again got a touchdown but, after an apparent two-point conversion, the try was replayed due to an official giving mixed signals (if you’ve heard of that before, you win). Pitt then got the stop, clinging to a 26-24 lead.

Duke wasn’t finished, though. They would score a late touchdown and, after another missed two-point conversion, had a 30-26 lead, looking poised to win. But with less than two minutes left, quarterback Kenny Pickett marched the team down the field for a final score on an incredible grab, spin, and run by V’Lique Carter with 38 seconds left. Pitt would force one final turnover, getting a fumble to close out the game for a 33-30 win.

Pickett and the offense were flawless on that last drive. The quarterback went 4-4 for 67 yards and the final touchdown to Carter. There was also a fifth completion that was called back because the receiver ran out of bounds and potentially a sixth one that drew a pass interference penalty. For the offense to come out and be so utterly perfect on that last drive is really a testament to not only their grit but their ability to play under pressure. Oh, and give that Mark Whipple guy some credit, too. Lots of it because the calls were great. Pickett didn’t play a perfect game by any means with the two picks. But he completed 29-48 passes for 268 yards, was hurt by a few drops, and had the game-winning drive. Not entirely pretty but he came through when it counted.

I’m not going to break down everything but a few things stand out to me in this one. There’s a lot more but these things are in mind at the moment.

Starting with the obvious, Pitt should have easily won this game. Anytime you’re playing so well and get up by that many points, you just shouldn’t make it that interesting. There’s no real excuse for it unless you’re playing a supremely talented team and you sort of luck your way into a big lead. That wasn’t the case here and you can point to any number of Pitt miscues that should have meant for an easier win. The Ford fumble. Pickett throws a couple of picks. The Butler-Jenkins fumble. Just any number of mistakes that you can point to that made it closer than it should have been.

Then there’s the targeting call on safety Paris Ford. If you missed it, Ford got whistled for a targeting call which was confirmed through replay. That was a shame because, other than the fumbled punt, he was playing out of his mind with two picks, including one that was a pick six. Targeting has mostly gotten out of control and this was a good example of that. Ford’s shoulder hit a receiver in the head but the problem with making the call in my estimation is that the officials didn’t account for the fact that the receiver’s head was dipped down. The announcers even made this point but mostly brushed it off and the point was reinforced on the ACC Network’s post-game show. Ford was livid and understandably so.

Here’s the thing. If you make the targeting call there has to be zero doubt about it and this one was far too iffy. There’s really nothing Ford could have done to prevent it, short of risking not making the tackle. Pitt not only lost Ford, but they they gave up a big pass play for a touchdown shortly after that. The Panthers will also be without him for the first half of the next game. Oh, and, maybe the most important thing in the moment, Pitt gave up a 15-yard penalty and then scored a touchdown on a long pass play without him on the field. The Panthers won the game but the effect of the Ford call will be felt in the next game, too. And that’s a shame.

Third, Pitt’s defense is just flat out good, folks. It might not show up in the box score since Duke scored 30 points. But this game was similar to the Virginia one in that the final point tally is deceptive. Duke needed to go only four yards after the Ford punt return fumble for their first touchdown. In the fourth quarter they had to go only 43 yards for another touchdown. They had to go only 25 yards for another. Even the one long drive they had with that long catch when Ford was removed from the game. The Duke points were largely the product of a big momentum swing and playing with short fields. As I said in the Virginia game, it’d be nice if you hold them to some field goals there. But you can’t really fault the defense when the other team is starting drives on the opponent’s side of the field and playing with all kinds of momentum.

One final point for me here. Pitt’s players are fueled by emotion under Narduzzi. That’s mostly a good thing and I think a lot of good things happen because of it. But to not point out the other side of it would be short-sighted. Sometimes, these guys are out of control and fail to keep their emotions in check. The game was hotly contested and it began in the pregame warmups. But guys have to be able to play with a bit more control.

Maurice Ffrench’s early penalty for taunting is a clear example of what I’m talking about. He had picked up a first down with Pitt deep in Duke territory. Instead, he got called for taunting, the team got backed up, and had to settle for a field goal. There’s just no need for that. It could have cost Pitt four points and, if kicker Alex Kessman misses the kick, could have cost them seven. You can’t give points away like that.

Perhaps it can’t be helped. Can you really play with emotion but shut it down so that it doesn’t become a negative? I would suppose you could. But it seems to me these guys are so fired up sometimes that it makes it difficult for them to play under control. There’s an unfortunate give and take with it and you wish things could be different. There’s got to be a balance to ensuring you come out fired up but avoid some of the silliness we saw tonight.

Not a perfect game but all said, it’s a win. I give the guys a world of credit for forcing the turnovers and really fighting back after they got down late. Just an extremely important win and while the struggle was more than you wanted to see, that’s quickly forgotten. Next up is a bye week and then a big Friday night game against Syracuse.

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