Duke football run game seeks spark entering road challenge at Virginia Tech

<p>Running back Shaun Wilson will try to get more involved against a stingy Virginia Tech run defense that gives up just 112.1 yards per game.</p>

Running back Shaun Wilson will try to get more involved against a stingy Virginia Tech run defense that gives up just 112.1 yards per game.

Just more than two years ago, Duke played one of its most memorable regular-season contests in recent history at Virginia Tech.

But gone from the Blue Devils’ roster is quarterback Thomas Sirk, whose 25-yard pass and subsequent two-point conversion heroics led the visitors to a quadruple-overtime win. So too are all five Duke players who caught a pass in that game.

If the Blue Devils have any hope of overcoming the 13th-ranked Hokies this time around, the 15.5-point underdogs will need to lean on an entirely new group as they return to Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.

Duke will travel to Virginia Tech for a 7:20 p.m. contest Saturday, as the Blue Devils are looking to snap a four-game losing skid and earn just their second ACC victory of the season. After claiming the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill four weeks ago, the Duke offense has mustered only 13.5 points per game. Outside of a relatively consistent rushing attack that remains in the top half of the conference, not much is clicking for the Blue Devils.

So when it comes to fixing Duke’s offensive woes, it starts at the top, with a man who has worked his magic on offense for the last four decades and is in danger of going winless in October for the first time in 10 years in Durham.

“It starts in staff meetings, in review of previous games and in preparations,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I always script the practice face and what we’re studying, doing and the direction we’re going to go. It’s meant that you take a fine-tooth comb through every detail.

“It’s human nature when things aren’t going well to pull out the fine-tooth comb. I don’t have any complaints about the way we’ve practiced or worked. I don’t want people to think that. We’ve got outstanding coaches and outstanding young men. But you know what something can always be? Better.”

The biggest improvement for Duke (4-4, 1-3 in the ACC) this weekend will need to take place under center. Redshirt sophomore Daniel Jones showed flashes of his early-season success last Saturday against Pittsburgh when he threw for two touchdowns and 272 yards—but also completed less than half his passes for the second time in three weeks.

Still, if the Blue Devil quarterback can help his team manage the game, sustain drives and capitalize on scoring chances—Duke is converting on just 79.3 percent of its red-zone opportunities—the possibility of a third straight win in Blacksburg is not out of the question.

“[How to sustain drives] is a complicated question, but I think the answer doesn’t have be complicated,” offensive tackle Evan Lisle said. “We just need to stick to what we do best. We’re a great running team, and as the offensive line, we just have to pass protect. If everyone does their job, I don’t think we should have an issue. It’s just been little things here and there that are keeping us from these victories.”

Despite turnover in recent years with the retirement of longtime Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, Hokie defensive coordinator Bud Foster has remained a constant in Blacksburg. Although Foster’s unit has held strong for most of this season, the Blue Devils have been able to exploit Virginia Tech (6-1, 2-1) on the ground each of their past two matchups.

Last fall, Duke ran 45 times for 227 yards and three touchdowns. The year before that, the Blue Devil ground attack was just as successful, as Duke leaned heavily on its running backs once again, tallying 32 carries for 179 yards and a score.

The Hokie rush defense, however, has surrendered only two touchdowns all season, and opponents are averaging 112.1 yards per game on the ground versus Virginia Tech thanks to a talented front seven led by 2016 second-team All-ACC linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.

Saturday night, something’s got to give.

“We’ve got to get more yards in the run game,” co-captain Austin Davis said. “You never want to get behind in the chains because it forces us into passing situations, and defenses know what you’re going to do. We’ve got to do a better job getting five, six yards a carry so we’re not limited in things we do.”

On the other side of the ball, run stopping will be an equal priority for the Blue Devil defensive line and linebacking corps after an unusually poor performance against Pittsburgh. 

Missed tackles and wide-open gaps gave Panther running backs Darrin Hall and Quadree Ollison plenty of space to rack up 336 rushing yards—108 more than in any other game this season. Just like on offense, it will be a battle of the trenches as Duke looks keep at least part of a balanced Hokie attack in check.

“Everything has to be better,” senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay said. “We have to learn from those mistakes, but as far as taking it to the practice field, we just need to be better. We have to work harder at it, make sure we’re more locked in and focused.”

Michael Model contributed reporting.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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