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Duke running game shows signs of promise

Despite an off-day, Jay Hollingsworth did score Duke’s last touchdown with 7
Despite an off-day, Jay Hollingsworth did score Duke’s last touchdown with 7

Nineteen yards. That’s about the length of a standard construction dumpster like the one you might see in the Wannamaker firelane these days. And that’s all the rushing yards that the Blue Devils gained in their first game last year against Richmond.

Head coach David Cutcliffe and his team have set their sights on ensuring that such a futile ground game never plagues Duke football again. Saturday, the team made its first step toward achieving its goal of a more potent running attack, rushing for 192 yards against an overmatched Elon defense.

Cutcliffe placed a strong emphasis on the need for Duke to develop a running game, and he did not waver from that game plan against the Phoenix.

“We were going to run the football, and we didn’t run it as well as we’d like, but we ran it better,” Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper looked to establish the ground game early, as they called six runs in the first seven plays from scrimmage. It didn’t look promising at the start. A three-yard rush by running back Desmond Scott on the first play was followed by a loss of two. Quarterback Sean Renfree bailed the offense out with a third-down strike to Conner Vernon, but Cutcliffe went right back to Scott, who was once again stuffed at the line of scrimmage on first down.

It looked remarkably similar to the abysmal Duke rushing performances of the last several years. But then, Scott broke free to the outside on second down for a 16-yard gain. On the next play, the offensive line opened up a huge hole inside, and Scott scooted through for a 34-yard touchdown run.

True to his pregame promise to get many players involved in the rushing attack, Cutcliffe ordered handoffs to five different running backs. Of those, only Jay Hollingsworth failed to get any rhythm, with just ten yards on ten carries, though he did get into the end zone for the Blue Devils’ last score.

Scott carried the ball 15 times for 77 yards, and true freshmen Josh Snead and Juwan Thompson each shouldered the load on one series late in the fourth quarter. Despite his small 5’9” frame, Snead—whose 4.44-second 40-yard dash was the fastest on the team during spring practice last year—was called on to pound the ball up the middle as Duke sought to eat clock in the fourth quarter.

On an 11-play scoring drive, Snead carried the ball six times for 24 yards and a touchdown. Thompson played the next series and ran six times for 20 yards, including an 11-yard breakaway.

“I really felt a spark when Snead and Juwan Thompson [came in]. They’re going to be real threats,” Cutcliffe said.

Even backup quarterback Brandon Connette, who may see some snaps this season in a run-oriented role, broke away for a 48-yard run as the clock wound down.

In total, the Blue Devils rushed for more than ten times as many yards as they gained on the ground in their game against Richmond. A performance like that goes a long way toward keeping Duke’s rushing attack out of the dumpster this season.

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