Why Duke football’s running game is just as good as Clemson’s

Duke hoping for more explosive plays

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about working hard to execute more explosive plays.
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Duke football coach David Cutcliffe talks about working hard to execute more explosive plays.

Duke’s offense has only scored five touchdowns in its last four games, so it would seem far-fetched to compare any part of that unit favorably with the offense of the reigning national champion – Clemson.

Yet the Blue Devils boast of a running game that’s as good as some of the better rushing teams in the country.

That running game gives Duke (4-3, 1-3 ACC) hope it can turn things around over its final five regular-season games.

The Blue Devils, on a three-game losing streak as it heads into its game against Pitt Saturday, average 190.43 rushing yards per game, fifth in the ACC. Georgia Tech leads the ACC with 362 rushing yards per game, but that number is skewed by the Yellow Jackets’ run-heavy, triple-option offense.

A better comparison for Duke is Clemson (6-1, 4-1), which, like the Blue Devils, runs a spread offense. The Tigers average 219.57 rushing yards per game, second in the ACC.

Both teams run the ball 43 times per game, which make them among the ACC leaders in rushing attempts. Georgia Tech attempts 64 runs per game, and Boston College, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are next at 44.

Here’s a look at how well Duke’s rushing offense stacks up to Clemson’s, using specialized analytics compiled by footballstudyhall.com:

Running backs on fire

Duke’s running backs are having outstanding individual seasons. Senior Shaun Wilson leads the team with 88 rushes and 506 yards. Redshirt freshman Brittain Brown is next at 78 carries for 485 yards.

Duke's Shaun Wilson talks about his 176 yard, two touchdown performance in a 34-20 win over Baylor.

Quarterback Daniel Jones has 209 yards rushing on 72 attempts, but his yardage total is low because sacks count against rushing yards in college football.

Removing sacks and kneel-down plays, Jones has 330 yards on 54 plays for 6.1 yards per carry.

With Brown averaging 6.0 yards per carry and Wilson 5.8 yards, Duke’s main ball carriers compare well to Clemson.

The Tigers’ three leading rushers are quarterback Kelly Bryant (87-519) and running backs Travis Etienne (51-466) and Tavien Feaster (66-389).

Their per carry averages – Etienne 8.7, Bryant 6.0 and Feaster 5.9 – are just slightly better than Duke’s top three.

Efficient and powerful

Success rate measures efficiency. A play is successful if it gains 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. (Examples: A 5-yard run on first down is successful. A 2-yard run on second-and-5 is unsuccessful).

Clemson’s success rate on running plays is 49 percent, which is No. 17 nationally.

Duke’s success rate is 47.3, which is No. 27 nationally.

Duke is better than Clemson in power success rate, which is a percentage of runs on third or fourth down, with 2 yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.

The Blue Devils are No. 13 in the country with an 80 percent success rate. That’s well above the national average of 68.7 percent and better than Clemson’s 66.7 percent, which is No. 73 nationally.

How Duke’s offense needs to improve

The Blue Devils need to score more touchdowns.

The Blue Devils are on track to make the postseason with a 4-3 record, but their offense is only scoring marginally more points than it did last season when it was 4-8.

Last season Duke averaged 23.3 points per game. This season, it’s averaging 28.4 points per game. That’s better but not good enough.

Though the Blue Devils clearly needed more touchdowns in their 17-10 loss to Florida State last Saturday, they gained 111 rushing yards on just 25 carries for 4.44 yards per carry.

“I thought we ran the ball with consistency better than anybody we’ve seen play Florida State,” Cutcliffe said. “Our execution was crisper on offense. We can do things better. We have to create explosive plays.”

In addition to touchdowns, Duke’s offense needs explosive plays. And its passing game lacks punch, a subject that’s been discussed often during the current three-game losing streak.

Duke’s points per play on passes is just 1.23 and 117th in the nation, while its running game produces 0.9 points per play and is 65th in the country. The national average is 0.91 so Duke is right in line.

Cutcliffe believes the running game can aid in producing the explosive plays the team needs. It’s normal for good rushing teams to continually pound the ball for 4 to 5 yards per carry and break free for a big gain (40 to 50 yards or so) a time or two per game.

Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671, @stevewisemanNC

Pitt at Duke

When: 12:20 p.m. Saturday

Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham

TV: ACC Network Extra