lair – Amid a litany of mistakes, Pitt extends win streak

If there’s a limit to how many mistakes a team can make and still win, Pitt put it to the test in the 2022 home finale on Saturday.

With a solid Duke team on the other sideline, the Panthers ran through a litany of errors, lapses in discipline and downright shoddy play for the better part of 209 minutes at Acrisure Stadium, but with a bit of luck and some sporadic success, they managed to emerge with the slimmest of victories, beating the Blue Devils 28-26.

“Our guys found a way to win,” head coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “We did it the hard way.”

Indeed, the list of mistakes Pitt made in the victory is a long one.

The Panthers committed two turnovers; those both came from interceptions, and they ended Pitt’s first two drives of the second half, effectively killing any momentum the team had built when it closed the first half with an impressive touchdown drive to take a 20-14 lead into halftime.

Each of those interceptions was mind-boggling in its own right. The first seemed to be a miscommunication between quarterback Kedon Slovis and running back Israel Abanikanda, who was ostensibly the intended target – but a Duke defender was far more in line to catch the pass. On the second interception, Slovis scrambled, scanned the field and threw directly to another Duke defender.

Pitt’s defense managed to contain the Blue Devils after those interceptions, forcing a punt after the first and a turnover on downs after the second. But that unit would make plenty of its own mistakes.

The first big mistake from the defense came when the Panthers had Duke in third-and-6 near midfield and quarterback Riley Leonard found Jordan Moore standing all by himself deep downfield. It was an easy throw for Leonard and Moore had no trouble scoring the 49-yard touchdown.

Later, while sitting on a 28-20 lead, Pitt had Duke in fourth-and-18 from the Panthers 19 with less than a minute left in the game. But another breakdown left running back Jaylen Coleman open at the goal line for a touchdown that could have tied the game.

And then there was Pitt’s punting unit. A source of issues all season, the Panthers had even more problems on Saturday. Duke’s first touchdown drive covered just 42 yards after a partially-blocked punt gave the Blue Devils good field position. And the visitors’ final scoring drive started at the Pitt 22 after punter Caleb Junko dropped the snap and had to retreat to recover it before he was tackled for a 22-yard loss.

That was just the punters. The punt coverage unit also did its part when Javon McIntyre was called for roughing the punter; that penalty gave Duke 15 yards and an automatic first down after the defense had stopped the Blue Devils and forced fourth-and-8.

The resulting extended drive ended with Duke scoring its second touchdown of the game.

All told, Pitt committed eight penalties and turned the ball over twice, gave up six conversions on 11 third-down attempts in the second half, had one punt partially blocked and fumbled the snap on another punt.

Beyond all of those mistakes, there was Pitt’s offense, stumbling through another inconsistent performance that offset a few moments of success with extended sequences of all-too-familiar futility. The Panthers finished with just 310 yards of offense, their lowest total output all season, didn’t score after halftime and only crossed into Duke territory twice in the second half.

Despite all of that, Pitt still came out with a win. It didn’t hurt that first-year Duke coach Mike Elko opted to go for two on the Blue Devils’ third touchdown; if the conversion had been good, it would have made the score 28-22. Instead, the failed play left Duke down by eight, and when the Blue Devils scored again, they had to try for two again just to tie the score.

Both two-point conversion attempts failed, and Pitt escaped with a two-point win as a result.

The win gives Pitt a 7-4 overall record and a 4-3 mark in ACC play. The Panthers will take a three-game winning streak into the regular-season finale at Miami next Saturday.