Much has been made of Duke’s rushing attack over the first four weeks of the 2012 campaign. Most of the conversation has centered on the Blue Devils’ increasing difficulty in establishing a solid running game. After examining the statistics, what seems most prevalent is the disparity between the amount of running and passing plays.
In four games this season, the Blue Devils have thrown for 172 plays and ran for 126, nearly a fifty-play difference. Quarterback Sean Renfree has been one of the most efficient and effective passers in the FBS, but without a solid run game to back up the aerial attack, Duke has utilized screens and deep balls almost exclusively to gain yardage to mixed success.
When the rushing attack has been limited by defenses, the results have not favored the Blue Devils. During a blowout loss against Stanford, Duke managed only 27 yards on the ground averaging 1.17 yards per carry. However, during the recent game against Memphis, Duke managed to rush for 177 yards averaging about 4.0 yards per carry. The team ran 44 offensive rushing plays and 40 pass plays during the Memphis game as compared to 23 rush and 63 passing plays against the Cardinal. When the Blue Devils rushed the ball less and for fewer yards, the team as a whole did not succeed, as was the case in the Stanford loss.
When they ran the ball effectively in nearly equal amounts of pass and run plays, the Blue Devils succeeded, as in the Memphis victory. On the broader scale, Duke's victories came when they rushed for around four yards per carry over 30 to 40 attempts.
The rushing game’s effectiveness correlates to the success of the passing game. When the Blue Devils played Memphis, Renfree put up four pass touchdowns and had a completion percentage of around 70%. The equal usage of the pass and run worked well for Duke against decent competition. Against top-25 talent like Stanford, Duke’s lack of a consistently strong running back became apparent.
Most games, head coach David Cutcliffe has tried as many backs as possible until one runs effectively. Even when there was relative balance in the offensive scheme, the running backs found difficulty in maintaining possession. Perhaps, a big worry for the Blue Devils will be whether they can trust their backs enough against upcoming ACC powerhouses to rush for positive yardage and hold onto the ball.
The only way Duke will be able to upset a team like Florida State or Clemson will center on ball possession and turnover ratio. The running game has its benefits when used in a more balanced offensive game plan, but the risk of failure is high when much uncertainty remains with the health and ability of the backs. The numbers say to run the ball the same amount as passing it. With other factors in play, the likelihood or probability that a balanced game plan will be used remains small until Duke’s running backs prove their mettle on the field.