Duke's 91.3 rushing yards per game would rank lowest among 2011 bowl teams.
Chronicle Graphic by Caroline Rodriguez
Duke's 91.3 rushing yards per game would rank lowest among 2011 bowl teams.

After a 2-1 start, Duke would be hard-pressed to call the beginning of the 2012 season anything less than a best-case scenario.

The Blue Devils took care of Florida International convincingly, fell as expected on the road to a far superior Stanford team and easily dispatched N.C. Central last Saturday. After a date with a relatively weak Memphis team in its next contest, the Blue Devils have the chance to enter conference play having won three of their first four games and halfway to their first bowl bid since 1994.

Duke’s passing attack has flourished through its first three games. Sean Renfree has been accurate with his throws and Jamison Crowder has emerged as a dynamic weapon alongside wide receiver Conner Vernon. The Blue Devil defense has stepped up despite a multitude of injuries, and aside from being turnover machines, both the defensive and special teams units have shown that they can put points on the board as well.

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Despite the team’s early-season success, there still resides an elephant in the room—the ground attack. As many positives as there are to take away from Duke’s first three games, this team has yet to show it can run the football, an issue that appears daunting at first and becomes crippling upon further examination.

“There’s no doubt that we’re not running the ball as much or as effectively as we would like. That’s a hot topic of conversation,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We want to win, that’s number one. I do believe that we have some backs, but we need yard production out of that position because those are good players back there.”

In the early going, it appears Duke can get by being a one-dimensional team. The Blue Devils gained 128 yards on 29 carries against a physically outmatched Eagles team Saturday, which was their best rushing output of the season. But when taking into account that N.C. Central’s rush defense was as effective as swiss cheese in 2011, allowing 181.1 yards per game on the ground, Duke’s best game running the football seems awfully pedestrian.

Duke’s current leading rusher is redshirt sophomore Josh Snead, who has accumulated 73 yards through the team’s first three contests. Just behind Snead is true freshman Jela Duncan, who has been mildly successful in the fourth quarter of the Blue Devils’ blowout victories, but has gained most of his yardage against the backup defenses of squads that Duke has beaten handily. The majority of the Blue Devils’ carries in game action have been split between Snead and Juwan Thompson, but a combination of pass-heavy play-calling and inconsistent touches in the backfield have prevented either from finding a rhythm in the first three games.

Duke’s running woes have also illuminated a perplexing quandary in their offensive line. The pass protection has been nothing short of exceptional this season, allowing just two sacks of quarterback Sean Renfree. Meanwhile, the offensive line has struggled with run blocking, creating little push at the line of scrimmage and forcing the Blue Devils’ running backs to make plays on the outside in space.

“There are a lot of factors that we can help ourselves with. I believe we’re addressing them,” Cutcliffe said. “We started Sunday with some really detailed, deep conversations and some real study with not just our film, but others. I want to do what our people can do best, and I think if we can find that niche we will run the ball better.”

Through three games, though, the Blue Devils have had no trouble scoring. Topping 40 points in each of their two wins, Duke appears to be building the reputation of a team that would rather win in a shootout than a low-scoring contest.

So why do the Blue Devils desperately need to fix their rushing attack? Because Duke doesn’t just want to be an improved team, they want to be a bowl team, and statistics show that bowl-bound teams run the football effectively.

In 2011, the 70 teams that participated in bowl games averaged just under 4.5 yards per carry and 179 rushing yards per game. Through their first three games of 2012, the Blue Devils are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and are gaining 91.3 yards per game on the ground.

Of these 70 teams, just one averaged fewer than 100 rushing yards per game en route to a bowl bid. Rutgers, which was woefully ineffective on the ground at 97.8 yards per game, did not need large scoring outbursts to win. Allowing just 18.3 points per contest, the Scarlet Knights had one of the best defenses in the FBS. Duke does not have this luxury.

If the Blue Devils take care of business this weekend against Memphis, they will need to win just three ACC games to end Duke’s seemingly-endless bowl drought. Whether or not the Blue Devils will achieve this ultimate goal will hinge on their ability to develop a second dimension to the offense. This team has shown it will likely flirt with bowl eligibility this season, but unless Duke sees a significant improvement in the ground game against tougher opponents, it will likely see its bowl dreams dashed once again.