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5 things to know before duke football closes out regular season against pittsburgh

duke's jaquez moore speeds forward during the team's saturday loss to virginia.
duke's jaquez moore speeds forward during the team's saturday loss to virginia.

it was a disappointing end to duke’s road campaign saturday, as the blue devils fell to virginia 30-27 despite a fourth-quarter rally. now, the final game of the regular season is upon them, as duke prepares to host pittsburgh at wallace wade stadium saturday afternoon. here are five things to know:

loftis on the rise

the narrative for this group in the second half of this season has been largely dominated by the absence of star quarterback riley leonard. the junior from fairhope, ala., was on track to have one of the best seasons for a quarterback in recent blue devil football memory before a series of long-term injuries sidelined him. 

taking the reins following an injury to backup henry belin iv is freshman grayson loftis, who has had ample time to develop as he plays in his sixth game of the season now. strong quarterback play is, unsurprisingly, instrumental in executing offensively and winning football games. while the team has at times looked weaker without leonard in there to make the big plays, loftis looks better every week. 

all the signs indicate he is more than capable. the gaffney, s.c., native threw for a career-best 278 yards against the cavaliers, and also recorded a personal record for longest pass with 34 yards. now coming into the final game of the regular season, duke head coach mike elko will need one more quality performance from him before heading into a break in anticipation of a bowl game. 

“that was by far and away his most productive day and again in the fourth quarter, he continued to make the throws that we needed to make on back-to-back drives,” elko said of loftis’ performance at a monday press conference. “he did what he could do on offense to give us a chance to rally back in that game. i think it's still continuing to be encouraging and continues to trend in the right direction for him in the way he's operating and the way he's playing."

waking up the secondary

it has been a rough few weeks for duke’s defensive backs and safeties. against north carolina, the blue devils gave up a whopping 342 passing yards. then, facing a weaker cavaliers squad, duke gave up another 278 through the air. there is no doubt that after a good start to the season, the blue devils are struggling to defend the aerial attack. against a pittsburgh team with a talented receiving corps, the home squad will need to regroup and prevent the long ball. whether that means rushing fewer defensive linemen or even just blitzing less, it is clear that the duke secondary needs all the help it can get. elko is aware of the weakness, however, and is working to help the position group bounce back after a challenging couple of games. 

“i think it's a multi-layered issue, the last three games,” elko said. “i think we've just got to get back to our game. anytime things start going like that, the biggest thing you have to do as a coach is you've got to get back to the basic fundamentals. you have to get back to the things that your kids are most comfortable with and then try to put them in positions to go out and execute at a high level.” 

in the trenches

for a duke squad that has in weeks past preferred to control the ground game with hard-nosed, gritty run plays, this one will be a challenge. the panther defensive scheme is one that sticks a lot of big, strong defensive linemen on the interior to clog up running lanes and limit those sorts of three- or four-yard plays that can make or break a game. the blue devil offensive line is a talented one, but it will need to play especially well saturday. if duke wants to continue to bring the pressure via the rushing attack, it will need to continue to battle for position and open up gaps down low for its running backs.

“[the panthers] make it really, really challenging for you because you've got to earn everything,” elko said. “they're going to be in the box loaded and not allow you a lot of easy run lanes and then they're going to be in your face outside covering you in a lot of man to man.”

return to basics

the virginia game was also one where fundamental skills were lacking at times. tackles were missed, sloppy drops or poor throws made and kicker todd pelino failed to convert on a 44-yard field goal. the blue devils need to get back to what they know. they are still only working with a week of downtime, but the squad needs to reset. the chance will come saturday. duke has to return to its identity: strong defense, a versatile attack and minimal turnovers. if the hosts can stick to what they know, this is a very winnable game. 

“i mean, you don't want to make excuses,” elko said. “it has been a gauntlet of a schedule, and when that happens, i think sometimes there's wear and tear that you have to learn how to play through. i think that's kind of what we've talked to the guys about.”

bounce back

it has been a challenging few weeks for this team. back-to-back tight losses against the tar heels and cavaliers will inevitably challenge team morale coming into its final regular season game. the blue devils need to keep their heads up, and come into this game ready to go. pittsburgh will provide a challenge, but one that is very much surmountable. elko needs to rally his troops for one final strong home performance, giving the team valuable momentum heading into whichever bowl game it ends up at. 

“unfortunately, saturday, we just didn't do it,” elko said. “nobody takes that more personally than i do and certainly the guys in our locker room do, so we have to very quickly try to figure out how to resolve it.”

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