For more than 40 minutes, Duke seemed to have no answer for the Pitt Panthers.
Then, just when everyone seemed ready to turn out the lights in Wallace Wade Stadium with Duke trailing 26-3 and unable to even get a first down, the Blue Devils rallied.
What a rally it was. With a minute and a half left in the game, Duke scored a touchdown to go on top, 30-26. If the score held up, it would be the biggest comeback in school history, topping a 21-point rally 52 years ago.
But Pitt got the big play when it needed it most and came away with a victory in a wild game.
“It was a day of explosive plays and they ultimately made more than we did,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Hats off to Pitt, they responded. This one is going to be difficult to put behind us.”
Here’s the thing: Cutcliffe said that a year ago — after Pitt scored twice in the final five seconds to beat the Blue Devils in … yes, a wild game, 54-45.
“Today’s game was two big plays by Pitt, failures too often on offense — again,” Cutcliffe said. “In the red zone too. And then the kicking game is just too inconsistent. We have flashes of brilliance at times in all three. Flashes are not what you’re looking for.”
No. Check that. Cutcliffe said that a year earlier, after the 2017 game, where Pitt scored the final 10 points to win … say it with me … a wild game, 24-17.
It’s easy to get confused. Since the start of the 2015 season, Duke is 30-21 against every team in college football except one. That’s a .588 winning percentage.
Against that one team — Pitt — the Blue Devils are 0-5.
The Panthers, meanwhile, are 5-0 against Duke, and 27-26 against the rest of the world over that time frame.
The five-game win streak matches the longest either team has had in the series.
They’ve lost every way a team can lose. They’ve been thumped — 31-13 and 56-14. They’ve given up leads. They’ve had their hearts broken.
The players have all changed. Staffs have been shuffled. Schemes have been tweaked. Yet each year, when the final gun sounds, Pitt has Duke’s number.
The Duke-Pitt series isn’t an outlier in the ACC. For whatever reasons, some teams just end up being kryptonite to others, always seeming to show up to derail a promising season for the favored team.
Consider Pitt’s own kryptonite. During Larry Fedora’s last two seasons at North Carolina, the Tar Heels were 3-18 against the rest of the world, 0-14 in the ACC.
Against Pitt, the Heels were 2-0, 2-0.
Carolina’s win over Miami earlier this season was its first over a non-Pitt ACC opponent in 1,036 days.
Since Pitt joined the ACC, the Tar Heels have never lost to the Panthers, going 6-0.
Over that span, Carolina has not beaten any other ACC foe more than three times and only has multiple wins against five other conference opponents.
While Duke has struggled with Pitt, the Blue Devils, even in the darkest days at the start of Cutcliffe’s tenure, were kryptonite for someone.
Virginia has gotten a measure of revenge in recent years, but from 2008 to 2014, Duke went 6-1 against the Cavaliers.
Over that same period, the Blue Devils were 34-47 (.420) against everyone else and 14-35 (.286) in the ACC. In two seasons over that span, Virginia was Duke’s lone ACC win.
Meanwhile, over at NC State, the Wolfpack are 90-78 since 2005 for a .536 record, not including their 6-8 mark against Wake Forest, who have more sub-.500 seasons over that time than losses to State. The Deacs are 80-86 (.482) in games not against NC State.
Each of the last two seasons, the Wolfpack had nine wins, only to lose to Wake in the final month. Last year, State’s losses were to Clemson, who finished 15-0, 10-win Syracuse, nine-win Texas A&M and Wake (7-6). The year before, the Pack lost to 12-win Clemson, 10-win Notre Dame, nine-win South Carolina and Wake (8-5).
Pack killer — or at least Pack annoyer — Wake was 2-4 against Boston College in the last six years before winning last month. And the cycle continues to turn. Each team, seemingly, laid low by an opponent who looks weaker on paper.
No scheme or magic tactic can explain it.
“It’s just people,” Cutcliffe said prior to this year’s loss to Pitt. “They’ve had some good people running the football and now they’ve got an excellent quarterback and big receivers.”
It’s just people. And who knows what people are going to do?