DURHAM — Duke right guard Brian Moore rose from the ground last Saturday flashing his biggest smile of the season.
With two minutes remaining in the second quarter, he had just pancaked a Wake Forest safety while the left side of the Blue Devils' offensive line cleared a path for sophomore running back Desmond Scott.
Scott bounced up the left sideline and sprinted 63 yards into the end zone.
"Getting up and seeing him 20 yards past me, that's what you play the game for," Moore said. "As an offensive lineman you want to see that."
As an offense, the Devils want to see more rushing plays develop in the same physically dominating fashion that has escaped previous pass-heavy Duke teams.
On Saturday, the Devils host top-ranked Alabama at Wallace Wade Stadium, where the defending national champions present the stiffest defensive challenge since third-year coach David Cutcliffe took over the Duke program.
This season, while still a primarily pass-first spread offense, the Devils have shown they can effectively run the ball, creating a balance that has made them less predictable.
"This is just a beginning in our run game," Cutcliffe said Tuesday. "We're off to a good start."
Scott, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound former Durham Hillside standout, leads the ACC in rushing with 199 yards and has two touchdowns.
His small-back stature has looked big-back in style. Lowering his pads, he's more decisive and hits holes straight ahead.
"He's running through some of those arm tackles," Duke running backs coach Zac Roper said.
Duke is seventh in the conference in rushing offense with 74 attempts for 321 yards and five touchdowns, falling behind league-leader Georgia Tech (663 yards).
It's a turnaround for a team that finished last - 12th - in rushing in the conference and 120th in the nation last season.
The Devils amassed just 762 rushing yards in 2009 (63.5 yards per game).
Slap in the face
"It was no secret we were last in rushing last year," Duke senior tight end Brett Huffman said. "And that was kind of a slap in the face. ... Through the beginning part of this year, we've tried to prove that we're better than that."
It started in the spring with coaches preaching physicality. It spilled over into the summer where players re-dedicated themselves to weight training.
All of Duke's running backs bench press 340 pounds or more, squat 400 pounds and power clean 290 pounds, an improvement from 2009.
"Because of how we finished, it's definitely about pride," Duke senior running back Jay Hollingsworth said.
"When you see that number ranked last, you can't hide from that."
Physical is a word used often by Duke coaches when talking about the running game.
"That will be a word we continue to drive home as coaches," Roper said. "Right now we're doing a pretty good job of it. We're nowhere near a finished product. ... We certainly are more physical."
Last season, the Devils naturally centered their offense around senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, a four-year starter with a deft touch.
This season, sophomore Sean Renfree is the starter. Like Lewis, he has a strong, accurate arm. But to offset defenses keying on passes, the Devils say they must run.
In the first half against Wake, Duke used its "pistol" formation with success, as Renfree hit targets and Scott found lanes.
"You hear so much about Renfree and the receivers and you get to where you're trying to stop the throw game so much, that you forget they can run the football, too," Wake coach Jim Grobe said.
It's brute force and speed that spring backs for 63-yard touchdowns. That's why Cutcliffe has encourage more full-pad live tackling during practice.
"When you talk about the run game, you can't finesse that," he said. "So we have to go live and practice it more and more and more. This is a risk we're going to have to take ... to grow our team."
Scott is attempting to become the first Duke running back since Robert Baldwin to lead the ACC in rushing at season's end. Baldwin gained 1,187 yards and had 12 TDs on 276 carries in 1994.
Scott and his teammates are pushing the competition in practice.
"They're looking for that contact," Duke safety Matt Daniels said. "They're looking for that next person to give a little move to."
email@example.com or 919-829-4781