With five seconds left on the clock and a 41-3 lead against Kansas, Duke freshman running back Shaun Wilson was 1 yard short of setting a school record for rushing yards in a game.
The Blue Devils coaches knew – running backs coach Re’quan Boyette nearly ran over head coach David Cutcliffe on the sideline when he went to tell him. So, in the name of history, third-string quarterback Parker Boehme trotted out for one more offensive play, lining up in the shotgun. The 10 players beside Wilson were given a clear directive – block – and the Charlotte native ran for 8 yards, setting the Duke record in his third college game.
Wilson’s final stat line: 12 carries, 245 yards and three touchdowns, which works out to an average of 20.4 yards per carry.
“If you see green, you’ve got to just go,” said Wilson, a West Mecklenburg High grad. “I was just running as fast as I could.”
With just four scholarship running backs on the roster, the Blue Devils (3-0) knew going into this season they would need Wilson to play. Still, though, it didn’t take long for him to stand out after he arrived at the beginning of July.
“It was one of our first or second offensive meetings, and we were just watching tape from last year,” center Matt Skura said. “He was actually able to critique other guys and say, ‘Hey, didn’t he mess up on this play?’ And he knew all answers to the coaches’ questions.”
The returning defensive players let Wilson know at the beginning of camp they would be coming for him – it was just a rite of passage for a new running back. But, they, too, discovered Wilson’s abilities quickly.
“Just letting you know that we’re going to come after you a little bit, give you a little love tap every now and then,” safety DeVon Edwards told Wilson. “And he responded well. He likes the competition. He runs harder, and he likes to talk back with us.”
Wilson is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds – not big by any means (or “little,” to use quarterback Anthony Boone’s word). Despite his size, Skura swears Wilson can hit defenders with power, in addition to his speed and shiftiness.
Wilson had made second-half appearances in Duke’s first two games, playing 30 snaps and rushing for 89 yards on nine attempts (a 9.9-yard average). Against Kansas, Wilson received his first handoff in the first quarter – and took it 69 yards for a touchdown. In the third quarter, he added another long touchdown run, this one for 68 yards. His final score came in the fourth quarter on a 45-yard run, one play after he ran for 32. That score left him at 237 yards – 1 yard short of the mark set by Robert Baldwin in 1994 against Maryland. Kansas received the ball with 3:57 to play.
“I said, ‘OK, I have no problem with that,’ ” Cutcliffe said of Wilson going for the record. “But I’m not going to take timeouts, I’m not going to stop the clock to do this.”
After allowing two first downs, the defense forced a stop on fourth-and-2 at the Duke 43. The offense trotted back out, and Cutcliffe told Wilson that, if he managed to break free, he needed to just go down.
“You don’t ever want to be one yard short,” Cutcliffe said. “When I heard that, that kind of broke my heart.”
Kansas coach Charlie Weis had been focused on stopping what he saw as Duke’s strength – the passing game. But then Wilson ran for 245 yards, the vast majority of the 331 the Blue Devils amassed on the day.
“All they were running was inside zones. It wasn’t like, ‘What scheme are they running?’ They were running inside zones,” Weis said, describing a simple run through a gap in the line. “They hit a gap, and, next thing you know, they’re bouncing their head off the goalpost.”