PITTSBURGH — In a game that both defenses would probably like to forget, Pitt and Duke combined for 1,254 yards of total offense on Saturday.
It was the kind of game where it seemed like the team that had the ball last would win, and that’s just what happened when Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with Maurice Ffrench on a 25-yard touchdown strike with five seconds remaining to lead Pitt to a 54-45 victory.
Pitt (4-4, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) moved to within a half-game of first place in the ACC Coastal division, while Duke (5-3, 1-3) missed an opportunity to secure bowl eligibility and climb into contention within the division.
Each team eclipsed 600 yards of total offense. Pitt’s 484 rushing yards were the second-most in program history. Duke did most of its damage in the air, with Jones setting career highs with 396 passing yards and four touchdowns. Deon Jackson set a Duke record with 403 all-purpose yards.
“Obviously, a bad day to play defense,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Disappointed in the way our defense played. Been there before.”
In a game full of offense, Pitt’s defense got an elusive stop late in the fourth quarter, with defensive tackle Amir Watts sacking Daniel Jones on a fourth-and-long to get the Panthers the ball back and set up Pickett’s game-winning strike.
“It was a day of explosive plays and they ultimately made more than we did,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Hats off to Pitt, they responded. This one is going to be tough to put behind us.”
Duke did not punt until the fourth quarter, with an early turnover on downs and a Jones fumble standing as the only two stops for Pitt’s defense until the final frame.
Ffrench’s game-winner was his second touchdown. He also scored on a 50-yard catch in the second quarter.
Freshman defensive back V’Lique Carter, playing in his first game, made an impact on offense, with scores from 31 and 16 yards out. He finished with 137 yards on seven carries. Regular running back Qadree Ollison had 149 yards and a score on 18 rushes.
For Duke, backup quarterback Quentin Harris scored on a pair of short runs and slot receiver T.J. Rahming had a pair of short touchdowns.
Pitt added a safety when Duke lateraled the final kickoff out of the end zone.
Pitt’s win finished a hectic week in the Coastal that set up a couple of big games over the next two weeks. Pitt, Virginia (4-1) and Virginia Tech (3-1) each have one conference loss and the Panthers will play the Cavaliers and Hokies in their next two games.
PICKING HIS GAME UP
Pitt had leaned on its rushing offense for most of the game, but Pickett game through in crunch time.
He started the final drive with a 24-yard screen pass to Darrin Hall and then hit Rafael Araujo-Lopes on a 17-yard pass, Tre Tipton for six yards and then an 11-yard scramble just before the game-winning pass to Ffrench.
Pickett finished 8 of 18 for 150 yards and two touchdowns, with three of his eight completions and 72 of his passing yards coming on the final drive.
“It was just staying positive with the receivers all game and knowing that we put so much work in and they’ll start connecting,” Pickett said. “That’s really all that was. The off week, we worked really hard on the two-minute drill.”
KICKING IN THE RAIN
With the game being played in a drizzling rain, the kicking game was likely to be tough sledding for both sides.
One of Pitt’s defensive stops came in the first quarter, when Cutcliffe eschewed a field-goal attempt from Pitt’s 24 and went for it on a fourth-and-7. Jones was hurried and his pass went incomplete.
Later in the game, Narduzzi trusted kicker Alex Kessman with a pair of long field goals. Kessman hit both, a 54-yarder in the third quarter and a 48-yarder in the fourth quarter that tied the game late. Kessman, a redshirt sophomore, set a Pitt record by hitting his fifth career field goal of 50 yards or more.
Pitt visits first-place Virginia on Friday night.
Duke is at Miami Saturday.