The Blue Devils have relied heavily on the passing game this season. Who would blame them for that? Senior wide receiver Conner Vernon is one of the best ACC receivers in history and his counterpart Jamison Crowder possesses his own unique set of talents. Quarterback Sean Renfree is an experienced and accomplished passer. Combine the talents of Duke’s skill players with the absence of a consistent rushing attack and passing remains the team’s most effective way to score points.
Though the Blue Devils received a boost on Saturday from their three running backs, who combined to have the best rushing game of the season thus far, the final drive with three minutes remaining on the clock was all for Renfree and his receivers. Duke still relies on the pass and the stats show Renfree to be a fairly consistent passer who is effective late in the game.
The halftime statistical splits show Renfree to be on the whole a consistent passer. His Quarterback Rating (QBR) is 140.7 in the first half and 144.3 in the second half, which is a minor difference. Similarly, both his completion percentage and yards per pass attempt are nearly identical in both halves, 69.9 and 68.1 completion percentage along with 7.72 and 7.33 yards per attempt respectively.
Despite the consistency of Renfree’s stats, one aspect of the numbers sticks out, that of the passing attempts per half. In the first half this season, Renfree attempted 143 passes while in the second half he attempted 94 passes. The Blue Devils have thrown the ball nearly 50 times less in the second half than the first. If Renfree remains so consistent, why does Duke not throw the ball as much in the second half?
The answer to that question can also be found in the stats of the Blue Devils running backs, Jela Duncan, Juwan Thompson, and Josh Snead. Combined Duke’s main three rushers have 82 rushing attempts in the first and 101 rushing attempts in the second half. The Blue Devils have utilized the rushing game more late in the game. This strategy has worked out well for Duke, which has not had consistently strong production this season.
The passing game can be effective early without the aid of play action as receivers like Vernon and Crowder can out-compete more conservative defensive approaches early. However, by pounding the ball on the ground in the second half, the Blue Devils are able to force more tired defenses closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. When play action is put into a play, the defensive backs are forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of Duke’s rushers, stepping up to line. However, when they do so, the receivers have more opportunity to get open down the field. By confusing defenses with the run game, Duke is able to get comparable production from its passing game even when less pass plays are called. The Blue Devils do not need to throw the ball as often in the second half to be equally as effective in scoring points and sustaining drives.
The key going into the final weeks of the season will be whether or not Renfree can continue to play well in the second half and not squander his fewer passing attempts. The stats point to the fact that this approach will continue to work for Duke’s offense in the future. When facing such offensive powerhouses as Florida State and Clemson, the Blue Devils can use all the offensive success they can get.