Panthers hoping to avoid letdown against improving Duke
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The giddiness faded quickly. Call it a byproduct of simple math. For all the euphoria that ensued after Pittsburgh kicker Chris Blewitt’s 48-yard field goal lifted the Panthers to a last-minute stunner against No. 2 Clemson last week, in the standings it counts the same as any other victory.
It was a sweet moment to be sure, but it was just one. The Panthers (6-4, 3-3 ACC) understand it won’t mean much if they can’t back it up on Saturday against improving Duke (4-6, 1-5).
“This Duke win, if we are capable of going down (to Clemson) and getting it done and coming to Heinz Field and getting it done it will be just as big,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Other people might not think it, but they’re a good football team and every win is a major win.”
The Panthers aren’t the only one coming off an emotional high. The Blue Devils rebounded from three narrow losses by a combined 16 points to edge rival North Carolina 28-27 , putting a severe crimp into the Tar Heels’ hopes of winning the ACC Coastal Division. It also kept alive their hopes of getting to six wins and securing a fifth straight bowl berth. It will take victories over the Panthers and Miami to get there without holding out hope there’s not enough six-win teams to go around and the Blue Devils can get in thanks to their academic success.
No offense, but it’s not the path coach David Cutcliffe would prefer to go.
“You want to play your way in and take doubt out of it,” Cutcliffe said.
Bowl eligibility is already out of the way for Pitt thanks to what Narduzzi hopes is a program-shifting moment. The quality of the Panthers’ destination is the only thing in question now. Beating Duke on Saturday and Syracuse next week would certainly make Pitt’s impressive resume — wins over Clemson and Penn State and down-to-the-wire losses to Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and North Carolina — plenty attractive.
First things first though. The Panthers dropped their final two games of 2015, turning a special season into simply a promising one.
“One of goals was to finish season a lot better than we did last year,” quarterback Nate Peterman said. “We’re going to focus these last two games and not let anything slip by. Every game is worth a lot.”
Some things to look for as Duke tries for a little payback after the Panthers rolled by them 31-13 last fall.
SHAUN IS ON: Duke RB Shaun Wilson is making the most of his opportunity to start. Wilson has 292 yards rushing in his last three games, including 100-yard outings against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and has run for a touchdown in each game. The speedster who set the school’s single-game record two years ago with 245 yards rushing against Kansas has been the featured back since starter and leading rusher Jela Duncan was lost for the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon three weeks ago in the Georgia Tech loss.
JAMES BEING JAMES: Nearly 12 months removed from a cancer diagnosis that threatened to derail his career, Pitt running back James Conner is thriving. He’s scored seven touchdowns over the last four games, including a highlight-reel 20-yard sprint against Clemson that put the Panthers within range to win it late.
“The best way to minimize the damage is to get more than one person to the ball,” Cutcliffe said. “When he gets rolling and he feels it, it gets increasingly harder to (stop him).”
RUNNING DEVILS: Wilson’s success has made Duke’s ground game that much more effective. The Blue Devils have rushed for at least 225 yards in each of their last three games after cracking the 200-yard mark in their first six games against FBS opponents. It helps that Daniel Jones has emerged as a threat to run, with the QB averaging 89 yards rushing during his last three games.
PETERMAN’S PROGRESS: Pitt senior quarterback Nate Peterman began the season as a game manager. He’s become a difference maker in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s increasingly diverse offense. Peterman threw for a career-high five touchdowns against Clemson and his deft ball distribution is one of the main reasons the Panthers are averaging 37.6 points per game, third in the ACC.
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
AP College Football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org