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Pittsburgh Panthers vs. Duke Blue Devils Preview and Prediction

Jeremy Cash

Jeremy Cash

Two teams trying to salvage their seasons will meet in Durham when Pitt (6-3) travels to play Duke (6-3). The Panthers have suffered two setbacks, a 26-19 to North Carolina and 42-30 to Notre Dame in games that legitimately weren't that close. Meanwhile the Blue Devils were trounced by the archrival Tar Heels last week 66-31.

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But while these two teams are still in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division race, the storylines around the game figure to be historical. Not only did the two teams play high scoring games last week, but they also scored 99 points in 2014 and 113 in '13 in their first conference matchups. To put that in perspective, that's more points than the universities' basketball teams scored in their first two games against each other.

Of course, Duke and Pitt didn't just start playing each other two years ago. Generations ago the two schools ruled college football; in fact Jock Sutherland's last game was a 7-0 loss to the Blue Devils that knocked the defending national champion Panthers out of a bowl in 1938.

Back then the punt was still used as an offensive weapon, the idea being that field position was as important as possession. It's how Duke went through the 1938 regular season without being scored on and, in fact, the only score of the game came on a blocked punt.

So if David Cutcliffe or Pat Narduzzi decides to kick on 4th-and-1, don't be so hard on them. They're just adhering to tradition.

Pittsburgh at Duke 

Kickoff: 12 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: ESPNews

Spread: Duke -3.5

Three Things To Watch

1. Duke's up-tempo offense against Pitt's defense

Notre Dame game aside, Pitt is still one of the higher ranked defenses in the country (27th). But can the Panthers stop Duke, which often tries to run a no-huddle offense that limits defenses from blitzing? The Blue Devils have given up only six sacks this season.

That could work in Pitt's favor, as sophomore cornerback Avonte Maddox was burned for three touchdowns by Notre Dame's Will Fuller and, despite starting since his freshman season, would seem to need all the help he could get when playing against Duke's Max McCaffrey.

But such an up-tempo style also tends to keep offenses basic, and the Blue Devils still run more than they throw. Part of that is because dual-threat quarterback Thomas Sirk delivers in this area, as he is Duke's leading rusher. Sirk is questionable for this game because of an upper body injury, so that's definitely something to keep an eye on. If Sirk can't go, sophomore Parker Boehme woudl get the call.

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Still, Pitt has struggled the last two weeks against running quarterbacks Marquise Williams and DeShone Kizer and recently its run defense has been suspect. Duke running back Shaun Wilson could miss his second straight game with a lower back injury and has split time with Shaquille Powell this season, but junior Jela Duncan rushed for 115 yards in Wilson's absence against the Tar Heels.

2. How firm of a hold does Nate Peterman have on the quarterback position?

Perhaps very. Peterman completed only three of his first 18 passes against the Irish, yet Pitt head coach Narduzzi praised his efforts after the game and, in Peterman's defense, many of his passes were dropped and his statistics improved in the second half.

But he didn't begin the season as the starter. True, Chad Voytik was pulled partly because he had trouble getting the ball downfield and perhaps partly because he was recruited to play in former head coach Todd Graham's "High Octane" offense rather than current Pitt offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's "Diesel" one, which has called for rushes 116 times more than passes this year.

But if Pitt were to fall behind early for the third straight game, and Tyler Boyd, who had only three receptions last week, isn't getting the ball, could a change be in order?

3. Can a defense that gave up 66 points last week stop anyone?

Duke likes to play with a five defensive back set, and the lack of a linebacker would seem to aid Pitt running back Qadree Ollison for inside running lanes.

Blue Devils' safety Jeremy Cash said of Boyd "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him."

There's no question Pitt has weapons on offense. The question is if Duke's defense, which is still ranked 30th nationally, can rebound after such a horrible performance last week.

Final Analysis

The key may be what strategy Narduzzi elects to go with. Running the ball successfully will keep possessions away from Sirk, but may limit scoring opportunities. The rookie head coach has proven to be, depending on your point of view, stubborn or loyal in his strategy, such as keeping Maddox alone on Fuller when double coverage was needed last week.

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Because of that, this game may be decided early despite the fact that both teams have played two games this year decided on the final play.

The Pitt running game will probably keep the score from being as high as it has the last two years, but we hope not.

Prediction: Duke 27, Pitt 24

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.