Two days later, I'm still not sure whatever happened at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday makes a whole lot of sense. It was a game that Pitt looked to have in hand, if not comfortably, until the very end when they allowed Duke to make a late push. The easy answer is that Pitt's offense played very well (which is true) and that the defense played poorly (which is also true) but let's delve a little deeper into that...
Quarterback: Obviously, this was Tom Savage's best game in a Pitt uniform, by far. Not only did he complete almost 70 percent of his passes for 424 yards (18.4 yards per completion) and six touchdowns, but he did not throw an interception for the first time this year. He got to show off his arm strength on long bombs to Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, which is definitely a new aspect of Pitt's offense this year.
Savage said after the game that he was surprised how aggressively Duke was playing the two receivers given their deep threat ability, and that's something Pitt will likely be able to take advantage of the rest of the way.
The most impressive thing (and the reason those deep balls could be even more effective down the road) is that Savage looked just as comfortable checking down to his third or fourth options underneath. Eight different guys caught passes, including Kevin Weatherspoon getting the first four receptions of his Pitt career. All three tight ends caught balls, too. If Savage can effectively work the medium passing depths going forward, that could force defenders to get more aggressive in their coverages, which in turn would open things up for Street and Boyd deep.
To go along with that — and something I noted in my post-game thoughts — it looks like the mental side of Savage's game has progressed miles from where it was at the beginning of the season (to say nothing of training camp). He has command of the offense and knows the plays well enough to check into things that will work. If this goes along with no more forced throws (and thus fewer interceptions), Pitt's offense could be really, really good this year.
Running back: For the first time, we saw a little bit of a split in terms of the number of carries for each running back. James Conner got 26 for 173 and a touchdown, while Isaac Bennett only carried 12 times for 38 yards. Paul Chryst said today that it was just a product of how the game was going and how well Conner was carrying the ball, nothing against what Bennett showed.
It might just have been because he did get more chances, but Conner looked like the best running back on the field Saturday. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and did a great job hitting his holes decisively. He also showed off some more moves than I think most of us thought the 240-pounder had.
Moving forward, Chryst said today that it'll be a game-to-game thing in terms of who gets the lion's share of the carries. If Bennett gets in a groove one of these games, it could be him.
In the fourth quarter, Conner only rushed four times for four yards. He said after the game that he did start to wear down a little bit at the end. As a freshman, that's to be expected a little bit, but Pitt needs to make sure they have other guys who can move the chains at the end of the game when they're trying to run out the clock. The ineffective running game in the fourth quarter was a reason Pitt let the Blue Devils crawl back into this game.
Wide receiver: When the quarterback has a game like Savage had, usually that means good things for the wide receivers, too. Sure enough, Boyd caught eight passes for 154 yards and three touchdowns, and Street added six grabs for 166 and two scores. At this point, it's not really an exaggeration to say that Pitt might have one of the best one-two receiver combinations in the country.
The most impressive thing about Boyd through three games is how polished a receiver he is already, despite having not played the position in high school. It would be one thing if he was just going out there and beating people on go patterns, but he's running routes, making good cuts and finding open space on the defense.
As expected, Street was matched up with Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell most of the afternoon — and even faced a decent amount of double coverage — but was still able to come away with a productive day. His most impressive play was probably the second touchdown grab, when Cockrell had tight coverage on him but Street used his body well to go up and grab a perfectly thrown pass from Savage.
I would of course be remiss here if I didn't mention Weatherspoon. He's a guy who Chryst said has been doing really good things the past two games despite not catching a pass. The ball came his way Saturday and he made the most of it. His 15-yard catch on third-and-7 late in the fourth quarter won the game for Pitt, and it wasn't an easy catch. It looks like he has locked down that spot as Pitt's third wide receiver.
Tight ends: Not a ton to take away here. All three registered a catch in the same game for the first time this season. Scott Orndoff added his second catch of the season for his second touchdown late in the third quarter on a nice pass over the middle from Savage. That play came on a 3rd-and-13 in the Duke red zone, and it goes to show that red zone and third downs are where tight ends are going to be valued in the offense this season.
There's still a lot to be seen from the tight ends this year. Given how wide-open this game was offensively, it wasn't really a good game for tight ends. They'll prove their worth more in games down the road against teams like Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, where Pitt won't be able to move the ball quite as easily.
Offensive line: Let's start up front by saying that Duke's defensive front just isn't very good. But that being said, the Pitt offensive line did what it was supposed to do Saturday. For the most part, they dominated the Blue Devils up front. Especially in the first half, Savage had plenty of time to throw and the running backs were a few yards past the line of scrimmage before they even got touched.
It has been very impressive how the offensive line with three new starters and two guys changing positions has come together through just three games. They played relatively well against Florida State, dominated an overmatched New Mexico team, and won the line of scrimmage against Duke. Last year, Pitt's offensive line wasn't necessarily a weakness, but I wouldn't say it was a strength. This year, the unit is only going to get better as the season progresses and, by the end of the year, it could end up being pretty good.
We also saw some more Dorian Johnson in this game as the extra tackle in Pitt's jumbo set. It still remains to be seen if the staff wants to get him more involved in the gameplan at some point or if this is it.
Defensive line: Given the high tempo Duke runs its offense at, Pitt probably had to rotate through at this position more than it would have liked. There's a pretty significant drop-off between the first unit (Aaron Donald and Tyrone Ezell) and the depth guys like LaQuentin Smith and Darryl Render (Tyrique Jarrett did not see the field in this one). There were also a couple of series where Pitt had Shakir Soto and Devin Cook in for multiple plays in a row. Cook was likely forced into a little more action because Bryan Murphy missed the game with an ankle injury.
Pitt only register one sack in the game, but generally did a good job getting pressure on Duke quarterback Brandon Connette and forced him into a few bad throws.
Like the rest of the defense, though, there were some negative points. Connette had a lot of success running the ball, especially straight up the middle. The line also overcommitted in a few situations, and Duke was able to take advantage with some misdirection screens. LIke most of the defense, once things started rolling downhill, it seemed like they tried to overcompensate and that only leads to more mistakes.
Linebackers: Unfortunately, it looked like a lot of the problems that presented in the Florida State game came back for this one. Despite the athleticism at the position, Pitt's linebackers were caught out of position a number of times against the Blue Devils, and that led to a lot of Duke points. This could've been a game where having Bam Bradley (shoulder) might have helped at least a bit.
Chryst said this morning that he was also disappointed with the tackling on Saturday. It didn't seem as bad as it was against the Seminoles, but it definitely wasn't good. Also, on a lot of the medium-range passes Duke was able to complete, it's easy to blame the safeties coming in over the top, but some responsibility also falls to the linebackers who are supposed to pick up the receivers over the middle. Shane Gordon struggled in coverage against receiver Brandon Braxton on the 75-yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter that kept Duke alive.
On the positive side, Anthony Gonzalez and Gordon both tallied interceptions, and Gonzalez took his back for what could have been a game-sealing interception (spoiler alert: it didn't seal the game). Both picks were pretty terrible passes by Connette thrown right at them, but they both took advantage of the opportunity in front of them.
Also, for the second week in a row, Todd Thomas blew up a fake punt (though not a very good one) on fourth down.
Secondary: I made this joke on Twitter Saturday, but I'll repeat it here: If my Twitter feed is to be believed, Ray Vinopal is responsible not only for all 55 Duke points, but also the Hindenburg disaster and the stock market crash of 1929. Vinopal definitely struggled, but not every pass that Duke completed was his fault. For instance, on the first touchdown pass, he had over coverage, but given how open Max McCaffrey was coming up the seam, it's likely that there was supposed to be a linebacker there at least providing a little bit of coverage help.
There are a lot of things wrong with Pitt's pass coverage right now. It could be scheme, execution, or (likely) a mix of the two, but it's not all just on one safety. Connette is not a good enough passer that he should be putting up 323 yards and four touchdowns against a unit that was supposed to be pretty good.
Again on the positive note, K'Waun Williams and Jason Hendricks both registered early interceptions. These picks allowed Pitt to build up a big lead early and forced the Blue Devils to play from behind. If Duke didn't have to play catch-up and went toe-to-toe with Pitt for the entire game, I'm not sure the outcome of the game would've been the same.
Special Teams: Another bad week for Pitt special teams, no other way to put it. Chris Blewitt missed an extra point early and had a short 24-yard field goal blocked. On both kicks, it looked like the snap was a little high and, Chryst even said today that on the extra point, the laces were facing the wrong way. Still, those are kicks that Blewitt should be able to make. Nothing he can really do but get better. From what we've seen from Blewitt so far, I don't think that'll be a long term issue for him.
The bigger problem, though, was the punt coverage on Jamison Crowder's 82-yard return on Pitt's only punt of the first half. Let me repeat that: Pitt only had to punt once in the first half, but let Duke return that lone punt for a touchdown. Nicholas Grigsby, in particular, had a big whiff on a tackle attempt on that runback. Chryst said this morning that he isn't going to revisit the concept of coaching special teams by committee (Chris Haering is sort of the de facto coordinator, but really all of the coaches work with the special teams units), but did say there's no excuse other than special teams has to get better.
Coaching: On offense, this one was pretty similar to the New Mexico game, where Pitt could do basically whatever it wanted. It was interesting that Chryst did go with Conner more heavily over Bennett when Conner showed that he had a little bit more juice Saturday. I thought that might be the case, but I also would not have been surprised if he was a little more stubborn about getting both guys work.
He did admit on his radio show that at the end of the game, he may have started trying to run the clock out a little bit too soon. In the fourth quarter (with Conner, their best running back of the day, ineffective or out of the game) Pitt ran the ball 12 times for -28 yards (that total is skewed because a sack taken by Savage and the botched punt towards the end of the game, but it still wasn't good). The Panthers only passed four times, completing two for 16 yards (15 of which came on the one pass from Savage to Weatherspoon).
In this perspective, it's a tough spot for Chryst. Duke was absolutely loading up to stop the run late, but if he stays aggressive and takes shots downfield, incompletions would stop the clock and extend the game for Duke. Especially in the wet conditions, staying aggressive would've been a risky move.
Defensively, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the problems are (partially because there were a whole lot of problems), but it seems like the same kind of routes (over the middle 10-15 yards) that were open against the Seminoles were open against Duke. It looks like that's where the holes are in the zone coverage that Pitt is playing, and it's possible that one of the solutions could be going back to K'Waun Williams and Lafayette Pitts playing basically exclusive man-to-man coverage.
And, once again, Pitt had trouble stopping a mobile quarterback. Connette didn't do too much improvising, but was effective enough on designed runs and the threat obviously opened up some plays in the air. There are plenty more mobile quarterbacks on the schedule this year, so that's a problem that really needs to get fixed.