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Duke football's run game struggles in loss to Virginia

Deon Jackson led Duke with 49 rushing yards Saturday, 24 of them coming on one third-quarter run.
Deon Jackson led Duke with 49 rushing yards Saturday, 24 of them coming on one third-quarter run.

Only 1.5 yards per carry.

At that pace, Duke’s offense would need seven plays to gain enough yards for a first down. 

The Blue Devils’ seven turnovers are easy to blame for the team's 38-20 loss at Virginia Saturday, and rightfully so, but the lack of a run game is equally at fault.

“The easiest way to play offense is to run the ball well, so we will be evaluating how we’re doing it, what we’re doing, what’s going right and what’s going wrong,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “And there’s nothing else you can do.”

Out of the cohort of quarterbacks the Blue Devils used, their net total of rushing yards was -35. Chase Brice is not known as a dual-threat quarterback, but when he finishes with -23 rushing yards on the day, a red flag goes up.

Running backs Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant both struggled Saturday as well, each having to fight hard for the yards they did get. Jackson and Durant averaged 3.5 and 4.0 yards per carry, respectively, numbers inflated by a pair of long gains.

On one third-quarter drive, Durant sprinted off of the left tackle behind a pulling Devery Hamilton for a 17-yard pickup, and a couple plays later Jackson exploited a crease and broke a couple tackles for 24 yards of his own.

Excluding these two outliers, the Blue Devils’ one-two punch would have only contributed 40 yards on 20 combined carries. 

However, those two third-quarter runs do show that all Jackson and Durant need is a little space. The speed of Durant and the power of Jackson make a good combo, but without some daylight to run through, their potential will continue to be bottled up. 

Saturday's contest was a perfect example of how a run game is crucial for a new quarterback, too. 

The lack of yards on the ground put even more pressure on Brice, who was already struggling to find his own groove. 

On the other end, sophomore Brennan Armstrong was making his first career start as the Cavaliers' signal caller, and his inexperience showed early on. Armstrong threw for 101 yards in the first half, consistently making erratic throws to his receivers.

The saving grace for Virginia? The legs of Armstrong and junior running back Wayne Taulapapa. The Cavaliers rode Taulapapa and Armstrong’s rushing prowess all the way until the fourth quarter, when Armstrong finally settled in and began tossing darts all over the field.

Whether or not Brice will get to start next weekend remains to be seen, but regardless of which of the three quarterbacks Cutcliffe chooses, the run game could be the difference in whether or not this team changes its season.

Productivity on the ground is so often the foundation of potent offenses, affecting how the entire offensive unit operates.

“Running the ball would solve some of our ball security issues as well," Cutcliffe said after Saturday's loss.

Ball security and running the football: two things that can make or break a team’s success. 

Duke’s 2.7 yards per carry and 14 turnovers in three games thus far need to be fixed this week if the Blue Devils want to have a chance against Virginia Tech next Saturday.

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