When: Saturday, November 1, 2014. 12:00 pm
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Television: ESPN U
Line: Duke +3.5
All Time Series: Pittsburgh leads 10-8
Last Time: Duke 55, Pittsburgh 58. The Blue Devils came back from being down 27-7 in the second quarter and down 51-28 near the end of the third quarter, but lost the shootout. Jamison Crowder had a receiving, rushing, and punt return touchdown in the game. Brandon Connette threw for 323 yards and 4 touchdowns and ran for 101 yards and touchdowns, but also threw 4 interceptions. Duke couldn’t stop James Conner or Tyler Boyd. The game saw both teams combine for 1,132 total yards.
What to Watch For:
1. Slow Down James Conner: The Duke defense deserves a lot of praise this season. They have perfected the “bend don’t break” mentality and are currently 5th in the country in points allowed. The one area where the Duke defense bends the most is against the run. The Blue Devils give up an average of 202.7 yards per game on the ground, barely inside the top 100 in the country. James Conner is a wrecking ball of a running back. He has already topped 1000 yards on the season and ran for 173 yards in the shootout against Duke last year. Duke is healthy once again and should have defensive linemen Dezmond Johnson and Jamal Wallace back to full strength. Duke will need all the depth they have against the Pitt rushing attack, who should look to go with a heavy dose of the run against a questionable Duke front seven. Jeremy Cash was huge against the Georgia Tech rushing attack and I would expect him to play a key part in forcing stops on the ground. If Duke has to commit extra defenders to stopping the run, Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd could be in for a lot of targets.
2. Can Pitt stop The Stable?: As good as Pitt is running the ball, similar to Duke, they have struggled with stopping the run. The Panthers give up an average of 173.9 yards per game on the ground. The Blue Devils have found a real strength with their running backs and their stout offensive line. Duke is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 208.5 yards per game on the ground. Shaquille Powell came alive in the second half of the game against Virginia to help propel the Blue Devils to a win, a week after Josh Snead broke the century mark against Georgia Tech. All the while freshman Shaun Wilson is still leading the nation in yards per carry. In a pivotal conference game, on the road, in the cold (the high temperature for the day is forecast at 39 degrees, with potential for some snow flurries) I would expect Duke to try and force their will on the ground, limit mistakes, and keep the ball away from Pitt’s playmakers. I would assume Shaquille Powell will start the game at runningback, but as usual, the coaching staff will go with whoever has the hot hand.
3. One Game at a Time: The Blue Devils know that they control their own destiny in terms of defending their Coastal Division Championship and getting back to Charlotte for a shot at the ACC Championship. Duke currently sits alone in first place in the division with a 2-1 record. There is a log jam for second place with 5 teams currently having 2 conference losses. If Duke wins their five remaining regular season games they will win the division. It sounds simple. This weekend’s game in Pittsburgh projects to be the toughest remaining game on the Blue Devils’ schedule. Both from a matchup and location perspective. Duke has shown a knack for staying focused and determined both during games and over the course of a season. This won’t get any easy, as each game brings with it more significance. It’s vital that Duke not look ahead at all and worry about beating Pittsburgh and the rest of this season’s opportunities will unfold as they should. Duke has finally garnered some national attention as they are ranked 24th in the AP Poll for the first time this season, as well as being ranked 24th in the first ever College Football Playoff Rankings. Duke was ranked in the USA Today poll briefly this season going into their loss at Miami. Its up to the Blue Devils to make sure this national ranking doesn’t lead to the same fate.