Expect Duke and Miami to run and struggle against the run

Could Duke and Miami set a record Saturday for quickest football game?

It’s in the realm of (extremely unlikely) possibility, but the clock should run often because of both teams’ focus on the running game.

Both the Blue Devils and the Hurricanes have struggled to stop rushers on defense, and both groups are confident in their ground-and-pound units. Miami might have the best running back in the ACC: Duke Johnson. The junior has been consistent with his output this year: 90 yards against Louisville (4.5 yards per carry), 97 against Florida A&M (10.8 yards per carry), 90 against Arkansas State (6.4) and 93 against Nebraska (5.2).

Johnson didn’t play last year in Duke’s 48-30 triumph over Miami – he was already out for the year with a broken ankle.

“He is – I don’t use this all the time – he is great,” Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe said. “He is a fierce, fierce competitor, with great strength and speed. In my opinion, he is a first-round draft choice. He’s a real first-round draft choice, not lip service.”

The Blue Devils’ run defense is going to need to be significantly better than it was last week against Tulane. Lazedrick Thompson, a bigger back at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, rumbled for 124 yards on 19 attempts – an average of 6.5 yards per carry. Dante Butler (5-foot-10, 215 pounds) also averaged 6.5 yards per carry on his 10 carries.

Johnson is a bit shorter (5-foot-9) than those two, but he can still run through the line like a power back, if need be, at 205 pounds. And he will have speed unlike any of the running backs Duke has seen this year.

“Once we corral and gang tackle and pursue the ball, try to get it out, we’ll be able to stop him,” said safety Jeremy Cash, never short on confidence.

He was even more succinct when later asked how to stop an elite back such as Johnson: “tackle him.”

As the low safety closer to the line of scrimmage in Duke’s 4-2-5 defense, Cash has more run-first responsibilities than the rest of the secondary. Still, those guys behind him – all sophomores and freshmen – need to do a better job diagnosing whether a play is a run or a pass quickly, and then working to fill their responsibilities.

“It’s hard. You’re trying to fit from 12 yards (out), so any false step, it can make a big difference in the outcome of the play,” safety DeVon Edwards said. “There are no shortcuts. Once you feel like you’ve got an edge on it, you get play action, you get draws. It’s really hard at times, and the coaches know it, but they’re still going to give you a hard time because they know that you can do it.”

Playing defense is difficult against today’s video game-esque offenses. But in order for the Blue Devils to hold Johnson to a more manageable yards per carry average, the secondary is going to have to fill its gaps, and fill them fast.

Both Dukes – Johnson and the Blue Devils – will be looking for running room Saturday. Last year, the Blue Devils ran for 358 yards against the Hurricanes, icing the game in the fourth quarter with 16 runs on 20 offensive snaps. The fourth quarter started with Duke up 31-30. It finished with the Blue Devils on top 48-30.

“It’s just a mentality thing,” Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said. “Our guys up front wanted to set a tone, and that’s what they did.”

Cutcliffe has said since the preseason that Duke needs to run the ball well in order to defend its Coastal Division title – and this was before freshman running back Shaun Wilson burst on the scene (a team-high 404 yards on 28 touches, an average of 14.4 yards per carry). Miami, like the Blue Devils, has struggled to stop the run so far this year, giving up 343 yards to the Cornhuskers last week.

So don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game looks a little like a track meet. Maybe even one that takes less than four hours.

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