Notebook: Blue Devils vs. Pittsburgh

Duke travels to Pittsburgh on Saturday with an eye on creating some separation at the top of the ACC Coastal Division. Here are some of the top storylines heading into the game.


BACK IN THE TOP 25

After running out to a 6-1 overall start, the Blue Devils have found themselves back in the national polls, checking in at 24th in both the AP and Coaches’ polls. It’s the first time in more than 60 years the team has been ranked in consecutive seasons.

"The two-year body of work has been exceptional," said David Cutcliffe. "We all know it can go away as fast as it comes sometimes, but it should make you hungry.

The challenge, of course, is for Duke to stay among the 25 best teams in the country, something that won’t come easy against a Panther team who is has more size and power up and down the roster. It’s a deficit the Blue Devil coaches addressed with their team over the last 10 days of practice.

“We’re not going to be as big as they are,” said Cutcliffe. “So technique becomes important; pad leverage becomes important on both sides of the ball and the line of scrimmage; effort becomes important.”

A season ago poor tackling was the storyline on both sides of the ball as the teams combined to score 113 points in a Wallace Wade Stadium shootout. Pittsburgh ended up winning 58-55, but the game seems to spark something for Duke. From that point the Blue Devils would go on an eight game winning streak. Will this year be a different story? Cutcliffe isn’t so sure.

“I don’t know if it was an outlier, but it was certainly a motivator for us moving forward. We had to slowly kind of right the ship. We were able to do it. This game is completely different. I think this Pitt team is more equipped at this stage maybe than they were a year ago.”

STOPPING THE RUN

For Duke to be successful on Saturday the Blue Devils must figure out a way to contain the Pittsburgh running attack. Sophomore James Conner is a powerfully built runner measuring 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds and averaging nearly 135 yards per game on the ground.

Conner represents a big challenge for a defense that has made a habit of bending, but not breaking. It’s why Cutcliffe’s staff went back to basics this week.

“You’re not going to tackle a 250-pound tailback unless you have great technique,” said Cutcliffe. “That’s just a fact.”

In the first matchup against an elite back it was the speed and quickness of Miami’s Duke Johnson that got the better of the Blue Devils as the Hurricane star rushed for 155 yards on 25 carries. As a team the Hurricanes ran up 203 yards against the Blue Devil defense, controlling both the clock and ultimately the game.

In last season’s game Conner rushed for 173 yards on 26 carries, scoring one touchdown.

CREATING CHANCES

In addition to Conner’s power in the backfield, the Panthers also have one of the better receivers in the ACC in Tyler Boyd. The Blue Devils will no doubt remember Boyd’s eight catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns a season ago in Wallace Wakde.

Boyd has continued his strong play this season with 45 catches for 651 yards and five scores. Much like Conner, he poses a potential problem for Duke. As does the entire Pittsburgh offense. However, the Panthers have a nasty habit of giving the ball back.

In eight games this season Pitt has coughed up 11 fumbles and thrown six interceptions. Those 17 giveaways don’t include the nine additional fumbles that the Panthers have recovered to keep possession. It’s something head coach Paul Cryst worries about heading into Saturday.

“We talk a lot about fumbles and interceptions — the exchanges, really. We had two exchange fumble/turnovers, and one just off of a quarterback/running back exchange. I think every bit of those details, you’ve got to make sure you’re addressing. Then, like anything, you’ve got to trust what you’ve done. Bad things have happened. We’ve got to make sure we’re coaching it the right way and they’re getting it the right way. Then you’ve got to move forward.”

The third component of Duke’s bend but don’t break defense, of course, is to create turnovers. The Blue Devils rank amongst the top 10 in the country in turnover margin, something the Panthers seem keenly aware of.

“That’s one thing you always watch,” said Cryst. “How are they getting them? You see guys that are making good plays. I think a lot of the turnovers come with good team defense, too, when you’ve got guys flying to the ball. It’s something that’s always good to show our guys. You take some of what are negatives and I think it’s important to watch them. You always watch the sack tape. How are they getting their sacks? What’s coming up? I think they — on not all of them but a majority of them — are causing the turnovers. There are turnovers that are giveaways, and I think they’re doing a good job of creating takeaways.”

GROUND STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

The Blue Devils had to enjoy the film session this week as they prepared for the Panthers. Pittsburgh struggled mightily against Georgia Tech’s ground attack a week ago as the Yellow Jackets rolled up a staggering 465 yards of rushing offense.

Duke has enjoyed a more balanced attack this season, but like Georgia Tech the Blue Devils are most successful when the ground game is working. In the six games this season in which Duke has rushed the ball 30 or more times, the team is 6-0. At Miami the Blue Devils suffered their lone setback and rushed 25 times.

“Duke’s got three really good backs. Obviously, they have a really dynamic receiver,” said Cryst. “There’s a lot things that Duke is doing that I think they do really well.”

Actually, Duke has four backs making a name for themselves. Freshman Shaun Wilson is the team’s top homerun threat, but he’s been quiet of late, totaling just 27.0 yards per game over the last three. In place of Wilson the Blue Devils have seen rotating starters Shaquille Powell and Joshua Snead step up their games along with backup Joseph Ajeigbe.

Powell posted a career best 68 yards against Virginia while Snead’s first start of the season against Georgia Tech resulted in a season high 102 yards - his first 100 yard game of the year. Ajeigbe ran for a career best 53 yards against Georgia Tech, and would have been nearly 100 but for a holding call negating a 38 yard scamper.

While it’s true none of the Blue Devils have had the consistency of Pitt’s Conner, “The Stable” has been able to stay fresh and provide a consistent running attack throughout the season. As a team Duke ranks 30th in the country with an average of 218 yards per game.

INJURY BUG NOT BITING

Last week Duke got fifth year senior C.J. France back at linebacker. This week it appears as though DE Dezmond Johnson and TE Dan Beilinson should be available this weekend.

NOTEABLE

- Duke has a record of 88-36-5 when ranked.

- Duke heads into Saturday’s game at Pittsburgh looking to improve to 7-1. Duke has not been 7-1 since going 7-1 in 1994. Since 1940, Duke has been 7-1 or better four times: 1994 (7-1), 1960 (7-1), 1943 (7-1) and 1941 (7-1).

- Last season’s game was memorable as the team’s put on the second highest scoring game in ACC history, but it’s not the only notable game between the two teams. On November 27, 1937, Pittsburgh became the first No. 1 ranked opponent to visit Durham, topping the No. 18 Blue Devils 10-0. In 1939, Pitt handed the Blue Devils their lone loss of the year with a 14-13 decision on October 14 in Pittsburgh. Duke went 9-1, won the Southern Conference. On September 29, 1951, Duke and Pittsburgh played in the first nationally televised football game on NBC with the Blue Devils capturing a 19-14 win.



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