Head coach David Cutcliffe may be renowned for his abilities as a quarterbacks coach, but it is his squad's rushing attack that has transformed Duke from an ACC cellar dweller into a post season competitor.
Improvements in the ground game have buoyed the Blue Devils to a record of 25-13 over the past three seasons and three straight bowl bids—a first in program history. Duke's running game could be the key to toppling No. 15 Arizona State Saturday in the Sun Bowl and securing the Blue Devils' first bowl victory since 1961.
Three years ago, no one would have believed Duke's running game could be one of its biggest strengths.
In 2011, quarterback Sean Renfree led an offensive unit that ran the ball just shy of 43 percent of the time for roughly 94 yards per game. The Blue Devils ranked dead last in the ACC in rush attempts and yards per game and second-to-last in yards per carry. Renfree threw the ball more than 36 times per game, tops in the conference, and the Blue Devils's one-dimensional offense scored just 22.5 points per game.
Duke went 3-9 in 2011, thanks in large part to a porous defense and a running game that left much to be desired. In 2012, the Blue Devils had a historic season, finishing 6-7 after losing in the program's first bowl appearance since 1995. But the running game was still not there—Duke ran the ball just more than 44 percent of the time, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. The slight improvements from the year before were not enough to take the Blue Devil offense to the next level.
But 2013 brought several changes to the Duke offense that propelled the running game, and the program, to the next level.
The Blue Devils hired former standout Re'quan Boyette, a two-time team captain and leading rusher, to coach the running backs. Duke also implemented a new zone-read scheme with mobile quarterback Anthony Boone taking over Renfree's duties under center.
The result of these changes—an explosive running game that helped carry the Blue Devils to their most successful season in school history. Led by a dangerous quartet of running backs and a pair of mobile quarterbacks, Duke ran over and through its opponents.
The Blue Devils ran the ball more than 50 percent of all plays, a significant increase from the year before. Jela Duncan, Josh Snead, Juwan Thompson, and Shaquille Powell—Boyette's own version of the "Four Horsemen"—each carried the ball more than 50 times on the year. The tailbacks combined with Boone and fellow quarterback Brandon Connette to rack up 178 rushing yards per game, the fifth highest total in the ACC. Relying heavily on its versatile ground game, Duke boasted the fourth best offensive unit in the conference, a marked improvement from 2011's 10th-ranked unit.
This season, it has been more of the same from Boyette and his stable of tailbacks.
The Blue Devils average 183.3 rushing yards per game, the 47th highest total in the country. For the second season in a row, Duke uses a quartet of running backs to wear down defenses—true freshman Shaun Wilson and redshirt freshman Joseph Ajeigbe joined Powell and Snead to fill out a dangerous backfield. As a team, the Blue Devils have averaged nearly five yards per carry and have punched in 24 rushing touchdowns.
The evolution of Duke's ground game has buoyed the Blue Devils to unparalleled heights in program history. If Duke wants to win its first postseason game in more than five decades, it will have to lean heavily on its rushing attack.
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Boone has struggled to close out the season, throwing just three touchdowns to go along with three interceptions in the Blue Devils' final three games. Establishing a strong rushing attack against a Sun Devils unit that allows almost 160 rushing yards per game could be the key to a postseason victory and back-to-back 10-win season for the first time in school history.