Pitt tops Duke 58-55 in ACC gridiron battle

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Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network
Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

DURHAM, N.C. – The Duke Blue Devils kicked off against the Pittsburgh Panthers for the first time in 37 years at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday.

The Panthers walked away with a 58-55 win as both teams combined for 1,130 total yards of offense.

Duke quarterback Brandon Connette made his third career start, completed 21-of-32 passes for a career-high 323 yards and a career-best four passing touchdowns, while adding two rushing scores as well.

The two teams added another memorable game to their historic series dating back to 1929 when the Panthers were the first opponent to visit then Duke Stadium.

Coming into Saturday’s game, Pitt held a 9-8 series advantage over Duke, winning the last game in Durham between the two schools back in 1976, when eventual Heisman winner Tony Dorsett led the Panthers to a 44-31 victory over the Blue Devils.

Nostalgia aside, it seemed that even after all those years, Pitt remembered how to score on the Duke campus as they tallied the first touchdown of the game at the 9:48 mark of the first quarter.

After a 12-play, 85-yard drive led by quarterback Tom Savage, the Panthers missed the PAT in posting an early 6-0 lead.

Just over a minute later, during Duke’s first offensive series of the game, Connette’s pass on third down was intercepted, and a 19-yard run on the play gave the Panthers the ball on the Blue Devils’ 42-yard line.

As Pitt eventually lined up to convert a 24-yard field-goal attempt, it was blocked.

However, just as quickly as the Blue Devils got the ball back, Connette was intercepted again, giving the Panthers the ball back on Duke’s 28-yard line.

Pitt didn’t waste any time as it scored on a two-play drive that extended its lead to 13-0 with 4:11 remaining in the quarter.

As Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt placed a low runner off the tee, Duke recovered the rolling ball to start on its own 22-yard line.

On second down, Connette found an opening and rushed the ball for a 37-yard gain to begin a scoring drive that culminated in a seven-play, 78 yard score that included a bullet of a pass to Max McCaffrey (3 catches, 34 yards) who leapt into the air to record his first career touchdown reception.

With no time to celebrate, Duke’s defense was put to task as Pitt needed only three plays to complete an 89-yard drive on their next possession to extend the lead back up to 20-7.

To begin the second quarter, Pitt wasted no time in launching an aerial play in which Savage connected for 69 yards to Tyler Boyd and pushed the Panthers lead to 20 points with 14:33 to play in the half.

After that play, the brightest light on Duke’s offense for the day, wide receiver Jamison Crowder (7 catches, 141 yards), began to shine.

Crowder pulled down a high 63-yard pass from Connette and helped to complete a 75-yard scoring drive that helped Duke stay close to the Panthers.

Crowder finished the game accounting for three touchdowns on the day (one receiving, one rushing, one punt return) and had 279 all-purpose yards on the afternoon (141 receiving yards, 109 punt return yards and 29 rushing yards).

“When I have deep routes, I always want to just run,” Crowder said afterwards.

“A lot of times, guys will look back for the ball maybe 10 yards down the field and the ball isn’t ready to be thrown yet. I just want to run as far as possible looking straight ahead and look up in the air and try to find the ball. I was able to do that even though I was a little bit late finding the ball. But I was able to do that and catch the ball and I was able to score.”

Trailing 27-14, the Blue Devils defense led by Jeremy Cash (12 tackles) and Anthony Young-Wiseman (12 tackles), couldn’t deny Pitt’s Blewitt another field goal attempt, as he converted on his second attempt to increase the Panther lead to 17 points with 9:25 remaining to play in the half.

Connette and Crowder quickly answered back as they connected on a seven-yard rushing play and capped off an eight-play, 75-yard drive that brought the Blue Devils to within 10 points, trailing 30-21.

Just over three minutes later, Crowder then pulled the Blue Devils to within two points after making an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown with 3:08 to play in the half.

“I got a great block right there at the end from Josh Snead,” Crowder said.

“A lot of times you want an initial burst to get past the gunners and once the cover guys come at you, I want to see which way I want to go. Like I said, I got a great block from Josh Snead and I was able to hit the sideline and score.”

With 24 seconds remaining in the half, Duke’s defense couldn’t deny Pitt the opportunity to put more points on the board as Savage found Lafayette Pitts inside the secondary, and extended the Panthers lead back up to 9 points, 37-28, heading into the locker room.

Pitt continued to build on its lead in the third quarter, scoring twice while possessing its largest the lead of the game, 51-28 with 3:18 remaining.

Connette then found a cutting Brandon Braxton (5 catches, 97 yards) to connect on a 75-yard passing play 13 seconds later and kept the Duke faithful in high spirits while their team trailed 51-35 heading into the final quarter of play.

McCaffrey made another impressive catch, an 18-yard reception at the Pitt one-yard line that subsequently allowed Connette to run the ball in for his first rushing touchdown of the day.

The Blue Devils couldn’t convert on a two-point play and trailed 51-41 as rain started to come down heavily.

While getting the ball back after the Panthers offense struggled to advance the ball, Duke had exceptional field position to mount another productive offensive attack.

However, after using a timeout to talk it over, Connette threw his third interception of the game and nullified Duke’s opportunity to get any closer at the time.

The Blue Devils worked hard to contain Pitt’s offense and were successful in forcing the Panthers to punt the ball back to them.

However, a fourth pickoff on Connette resulted in another touchdown that pushed the Panthers lead to 58-41 with 8:30 to play.

“The parts that hurt and the parts that you can’t quite put your finger on is why we struggle in areas of execution that have kind of just crept in,” Cutcliffe said.

“That’s my responsibility. We have to play clean. We can’t give up big plays. All we have to do is execute what we do and what we want. That’s my area of responsibility. We have to take care of the football and execute flawlessly on offense and that’s my area of expertise and my area of responsibility.”

Many watching thought that the Blue Devils had nothing left in the tank, but Connette, Crowder, and Jela Duncan (5 rushes, 25 yards) all contributed to an eight-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Braxton Deaver (2 catches, 21 yards) catching a six-yard pass to score and bring Duke to within 10 points once more with 5:30 remaining.

Kenny Anunike (3 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack) then came up with a big sack on Savage a minute later, resulting in an 11-yard loss, and combined with a fumbled ball by Pitt’s punter, the Blue Devils found themselves on the Panthers’ 30-yard line on their next possession.

Connette found Crowder once more for a 25-yard reception that ended at the Pitt 5-yard line.

As rain continued to poured down, the Blue Devils waited for a review of Connette’s rush for a touchdown that was too close to call.

The play was ruled in Duke’s favor as it trailed Pitt by only three points, 58-55 with 3:17 to play.

However, with under two minutes to play, a 15-yard Panthers reception at the Duke 24-yard line gave them first down and the ability to run down the remainder of the game clock and hold on for the win.

“This team is not about to go away,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said of his team’s effort.

“We have too many things to build on and unfortunately too many to correct, but they’re correctable.”