DURHAM -- The Pittsburgh Panthers visit to Wallace Wade Stadium this Saturday is their first ACC road test.
It also marks the resumption of a long dormant rivalry, one that has produced some compelling, high-quality football.
The teams have met 17 times, with Pitt winning nine, Duke eight. Pitt beat Duke back in 1929 in the first game played at what is now Wallace Wade Stadium. The two programs met six consecutive years from 1937 through 1942, with Duke winning four times.
Several of these games had national-title implications, including a 10-0 Pitt win in 1937 that wrapped up a national title and Duke’s 7-0 win a year later, that sent the Blue Devils to the Rose Bowl.
National titles weren’t at stake again until the 1970s. Pitt football hit rock-bottom, going 1-10 in 1972. Johnny Majors took over the following year and revived the program, bringing in practically an entirely new team his first season.
Duke’s Mike McGee was in his fifth season at his alma mater when 1-2 Duke traveled to 2-1 Pittsburgh on October 4, 1975. Majors’ most successful recruit was junior tailback Tony Dorsett, on the way to a 1,600-yard rushing season.
Duke assigned linebacker Carl McGee to shadow Dorsett and the Blue Devils held him to a modest 84 yards, on 19 carries. But Pitt quarterback Robert Haygood and Dorsett each scored from a yard out, while Duke’s offense struggled. Duke’s best scoring opportunity came to naught in the third quarter when Leroy Felder intercepted a Bob Corbett pass in the end zone.
The final was 14-0.
Dorsett finished fourth in the 1975 Heisman voting, trailing winner Archie Griffin, Chuck Muncie and Ricky Bell, all running backs. Duke had played Bell earlier that season.
Duke thought it could get revenge in 1976, this time back in Durham. Duke began the 1976 season with an upset road win over Tennessee, a loss to South Carolina and a victory over Virginia.
Pittsburgh kicked off the campaign ranked ninth in the AP poll. Despite losing Haygood to a season-ending knee injury, the Panthers posted wins over Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Temple.
They came to Durham ranked second, trailing only Michigan.
McGee’s Blue Devils were accustomed to playing national powers. Southern Cal, Alabama, Stanford, Washington and Florida had all appeared on Duke’s schedule under McGee’s tenure.
“Duke players loved playing that kind of competition,” McGee says from his home in Colorado. “They responded to that kind of challenge. We competed with anyone.”
Mike Barney, a tailback on that 1976 Duke team, says they fed off McGee’s combativeness. “Mike McGee had us thinking we could beat anyone. He knew how to motivate us. We had a toughness. We could play smash-mouth football. We were excited to play somebody like that. We saw it as an opportunity.”
Tony Benjamin was Duke’s fullback. A Pennsylvania native, he had considered Pitt “but Majors brought in so many players, that it discouraged me. Based on how we had played them the year before and based on our win at Tennessee, we thought we had a chance.”
A crowd of 37,200 showed up to see if Benjamin was right.
The early returns were promising. Duke controlled the ball for almost 11 minutes in the first period and converted a 4th and inches in its own territory as part of a 75-yard drive. Art Gore finished it off from four yards out.
The lead didn’t last long. Pitt struck back on a four-play, 76-yard drive. The last 66 came on a Matt Cavanaugh to Willie Taylor bomb, when Duke corner back Bob Grupp gambled on an interception and lost.
Making only his second start after the injury to Haygood, Cavanaugh was a wild-card. Any rational defensive strategy against Pitt started with Dorsett. “We had a good game plan for Dorsett,” McGee recalls. “But we didn’t expect that from Cavanaugh.”
The first period ended 7-7. James Wilson blocked a Grupp punt out of the end zone for a safety early in the second quarter.
It stayed 9-7 for most of the second period. Barney recalls Pitt lineman Randy Holloway “really clogging things up. We had a hard time moving him.”
Then the roof caved in. Or the wheels came off.
Whatever idiom one uses, it was one of the worst three minutes in Duke football history.
It started when Duke’s star quarterback Mike Dunn threw an interception at the Duke 35. A few plays later Andy Schoenhoft had Cavanaugh wrapped up for an apparent sack but Cavanaugh somehow found Taylor in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown.
Duke had a three-and-out and Grupp punted off the side of his foot. Pitt went 49 yards in 25 seconds, with Cavanaugh and Jim Corbett connecting on the 27-yard score.
Dunn had been banged up on the previous drive and was replaced by Dale Oostdyk. McGee wanted to get some points back but Oostdyk was intercepted by Bob Jury at the Duke 37.
It was Oostdyk’s only pass of the 1976 season.
Pitt had 15 seconds, time enough for Gordon Jones to outrun Earl Cook on a fly pattern down the left sideline.
The half ended 30-7.
“We made a couple of critical mistakes and the next thing you know, we were chasing them,” Barney laments. “We went into the locker room wondering what happened.”
Benjamin has similar memories. “It’s just debilitating how quickly it can happen. That’s the sport. One little mistake and that’s how momentum shifts. When momentum is on your side, that’s the kind of thing that can happen.”
It got worse before it got better. Pitt took the second-half kickoff and added to its lead when Cavanaugh found Jones from the Duke 24.
This made it 37-7.
Facing a defeat of epic proportions, Duke dug deep.
“We had the mindset that we could compete with anyone,” Benjamin says. “We had a tremendous amount of pride. Coach McGee was a tough-minded coach and that translated into a tough-minded group. We weren’t going to stop playing just because of the score.”
Dunn was Duke’s ace in the hole. The 6-4 sophomore was an elite pass-run quarterback, good enough to lead the ACC in total offense in 1976. “An outstanding athlete and a great leader,” McGee recalls. “I can still see him stretching out for a first down.”
Barney calls Dunn “a great guy to go to battle with. He was ahead of his time. He was a fierce competitor. He would put his body on the line and do anything to win a game. He gave us a chance against anybody.”
Dunn led a 58-yard drive. Barney scored from a yard out and Dunn hit Benjamin for a two-point conversion.
Dorsett finally got loose from Carl McGee and scampered 32 yards, to the Duke 35. Cavanaugh hit Corbett for 31 more, to the Duke four. Dorsett took it in. It was 44-15, with 2:51 left in the third period.
Dunn hit Chuck Williamson with a 55-yard score, Williamson making a juggling catch in traffic. Dunn ran for the conversion and it was 44-23.
The visitors used up five minutes before Dorsett lost a fumble at the Duke 32. Duke responded with another scoring drive but burned five valuable minutes in the process. Barney’s 1-yard touchdown and another two-point conversion made the score 44-31, with 5:31 left.
It ended that way.
Dorsett ended the game with 129 rushing yards on 31 carries, while Cavanaugh set a school record with five touchdown passes, completing 14-17 for 339 yards.
Benjamin led Duke with 71 rushing yards, while Dunn passed for 197. Tom Hall had six catches, for 74 yards.
Pittsburgh went on to win the national title after completing a 12-0 season with a 27-3 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Dorsett won the Heisman by a landslide over Ricky Bell of Southern Cal.
Duke finished 5-5-1.
The programs haven’t met since. But Benjamin vividly recalls the day Duke went eyeball to eyeball with the nation’s best team and didn’t blink. “We competed for 60 minutes and never backed down. I still take great pride in that.”