PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi has been around long enough to know an NFL-caliber player when he sees one. And he sees one in Duke's senior quarterback Daniel Jones.
An up close look awaits Saturday when Jones and the Blue Devils (5-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) visit the Panthers (3-4, 2-1).
"He's 6-5, he has (Duke coach) David (Cutcliffe) as his quarterbacks coach," Narduzzi said. "Got a gun arm. He can also move in the pocket. He's elusive."
Narduzzi sounded almost envious — almost — while talking about Jones, who is projected to be a first-round pick next spring. While Jones is flourishing, Pitt's passing game is struggling to get the ball downfield. The Panthers rank near the bottom of the ACC in nearly every passing category, including yards per game, yards per attempt and touchdown passes.
Still, Pitt remains in the thick of the ACC Coastal Division race — as does Duke — thanks in large part to the senior running back tandem of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Ollison is second in the conference in yards rushing (92.3 yards per game) with Hall providing a change of pace when he comes off the bench. Oh, and Hall lit the Blue Devils up for 254 yards on the ground in a Pitt victory on the road in Durham last fall.
"We're going to stand on the run," Narduzzi said. "That's what we do well right now. We're going to run the football and set up the pass with the run. That's Pittsburgh to begin with. That's tough football."
A style Duke knows it needs to be ready for if it wants to avoid its first losing streak of the season. The Blue Devils couldn't keep up with Virginia last week as the Cavaliers pushed them around. Cutcliffe knows to expect more of the same from Pitt and everyone else on his team's schedule until his group starts tackling better.
"It's not rocket science," Cutcliffe said. "But maybe it requires the most difficult thing that any of us are faced with and that's diligence and consistency."
Two items that have proven to be a rare commodity in the wide-open Coastal. A Duke loss and the Blue Devils are out of the mix. A Pitt defeat whittles whatever margin for errors the Panthers have down to zero.
"Really, the standings mean nothing," Narduzzi said. "The only thing that matters is what we do this weekend against Duke. After a week, if you don't get your job done, standings don't mean as much."
Pitt has been a particularly tough matchup for Duke lately. Since the Panthers joined the ACC in 2013, the Blue Devils are just 1-4 against them, matching their worst record against any other Coastal Division opponent in that time frame. Miami has also won four of five meetings since then.
"When you think about the games with Pitt over the last few years, they've all been physical and tough games," Jones said. "So we know it'll be a four-quarter game and a challenge for us. Big opportunity."
Pitt kicker Alex Kessman booted two field goals of over 50 yards in an overtime win against Syracuse at Heinz Field on Oct. 6. He then missed a pair of field goals in a tough 19-14 loss to unbeaten Notre Dame two weeks ago.
"One week you're the hero, you can't do anything wrong," Narduzzi said. "The next week things don't go your way. Every week somebody wins and somebody loses ... I think he'll respond, but we'll find out Saturday."
Duke RB Deon Jackson is adjusting to an increased workload. With starter Brittain Brown missing the past two games due to injury, Jackson has been the only running back to carry the ball. He averaged just 1.5 yards per carry on 11 carries last week against Virginia after rushing for 98 yards and a touchdown in the win over Georgia Tech.
"It's been a big change for me, but it's something I can handle, and the coaches obviously see I can handle it as well," Jackson said.
Pitt began the season wondering who was going to replace departed All-American kick returner Quadree Henderson, who left school early for the NFL. Maurice Ffrench provided an emphatic answer. The junior is second in the country in kickoff return average (33.8 yards) and has already taken two kicks back for scores, including a 99-yarder two weeks ago against Notre Dame as the Panthers nearly upset the unbeaten Fighting Irish.