DURHAM – Pittsburgh played its first road game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Saturday.
Forgive the Panthers if they thought they accidentally joined the Arena Football League.
Pittsburgh and Duke combined for more than 1,100 yards of total offense, seven touchdowns of 25 yards or longer and 113 points as the Panthers built a big lead and narrowly held on, 58-55, at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Among many things added to the record book, 55 points were the most Duke has scored in a loss.
“This is a game we’ll need to remember, not only as a team but as a program, because we’re better than what we played,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Somewhere along the way, it’ll be good for us to remember this one.”
Quarterback Tom Savage went 23-for-33 for 424 yards on top of six touchdowns and no interceptions for Pittsburgh (2-1, 1-1 ACC), but it was the Panthers’ dominance at the line of scrimmage that allowed them to create 37 first-half points.
Pittsburgh thoroughly controlled Duke’s defensive line with its power running, and the Panthers had more than 300 yards of offense less than 16 minutes into the game.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “It’s just pound-the-ball football, and they’re just trying to pound it down your throat. I think in that first half (we) came out a little bit slow.”
Pittsburgh ran on 13 of its first 18 plays, and Duke (2-2, 0-2) began waiting for rushing plays.
With the Blue Devils peering into the backfield, Savage threw touchdowns on three straight Panthers’ drives to take a 27-7 lead early in the second quarter.
“You just have to play on top of them, and sometimes you don’t,” Cutcliffe said. “The safeties keep seeing run, and seeing run, and seeing run – therein lies the issue. It’s age old. It’s difficult when a team can control the line of scrimmage, and they did early.”
Quarterback Brandon Connette, playing in place of injured Anthony Boone, threw interceptions on the Blue Devils’ first two possessions, but he – along with the rest of the Blue Devils – drastically improved the rest of the game.
Connette finished with 323 yards passing, four touchdowns, four interceptions and led Duke with 101 yards rushing.
Jamison Crowder again provided a spark for Duke, scoring three touchdowns in the first half – a 62-yard catch, a seven-yard run and an 82-yard punt return.
“My level of confidence was at a high,” Crowder said, “So every time I touched the ball, I was trying to make a play.”
With both defenses failing to stop much of anything, the score continued to swell in the second half. A Savage touchdown pass to Scott Orndoff gave Pittsburgh a 51-28 lead with 3:18 remaining in the third quarter.
Duke scored two straight touchdowns to cut the lead to 10, but Pittsburgh linebacker Anthony Gonzalez beat Connette’s throw to the spot, and Gonzalez’s 37-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter gave the Panthers a 58-41 lead.
“I thought the will backer did a great job of cutting underneath the route, and he made a nice play,” Connette said. “Sometimes, the other team makes better plays than you do, so you just have to give credit where credit’s due.”
Still, Duke never went away.
Connette hit Braxton Deaver for a six-yard touchdown to bring the Blue Devils within 10 once again, then a drive set up by a fumbled Pittsburgh punt finished with Connette’s one-yard touchdown run with 3:43 to go. Duke’s onside kick failed, however, and the Pittsburgh offense was able to prevent the Blue Devils from having another possession.
Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst said he just was happy to earn a win, even if the Panthers made it much more difficult than it had to be.
“As you come on the road and compete like heck, the whole purpose of the game is to try to win,” Chryst said. “We found a way to win, and we found a way to make it close.”
Duke was pleased that it was able to keep fighting in a game that twice could have been considered a blowout.
With four turnovers and nearly 600 yards allowed, though, the Blue Devils knew there is plenty to correct.
“We never gave up. We kept fighting,” Crowder said. “But at the same time, we have a lot of things we gotta clean up.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org