League teams are averaging nearly 171 yards rushing per game this season, the highest since at least 1996, according to STATS LLC. Eight of the 12 schools in the league last year average more yards on the ground this season.
They’re doing it in different ways, too.
There’s Georgia Tech’s run-heavy scheme that always puts up big numbers under Paul Johnson. Boston College leans heavily on Heisman Trophy candidate Andre Williams. Teams like No. 24 Duke and North Carolina use a rotation of runners, while No. 6 Clemson, Maryland and North Carolina State have bolstered their ground attacks with steady help from their quarterbacks.
“I think a lot of us that are going as fast as we go, and BC’s not really in that world, we may have 90 snaps, and you better have more than one (running back),” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “That’s a taxing position because there’s pounding. ... So those guys, I think you have to have that. I’ve always liked when we had enough for somebody to be fresh and hopefully hot in the fourth quarter.”
It’s certainly harder to find a runner who can carry the load in an era of pass-heavy offenses.
Williams is the nation’s leading rusher with 2,073 yards and is the first major college back to reach 2,000 yards since 2008. Williams has helped BC go from averaging 90.9 yards rushing in 2012 to 220.5 yards this year, second in the ACC to Georgia Tech (316.1).
They’re two of the eight ACC schools averaging more rushing yards this season, joining No. 2 Florida State, Duke, Miami, N.C. State, Virginia and Maryland.
Individually, Virginia’s Kevin Parks is second to Williams in both yardage (926) and carries (210). Clemson’s Roderick McDowell, Florida State’s Devonta Freeman and Syracuse’s Jerome Smith all can reach 1,000 yards.
For other teams, the focus is manufacturing a ground game through a variety of ways.
Former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden sees several factors in improved rushing averages, from no-huddle offenses that squeeze more plays into games and spread out defenses to teams looking for ways to get more playmakers on the field.
“Boston College is more the traditional way that teams used to do it,” said Bowden, now a TV studio analyst for ACC football broadcasts. “That’s old school. Georgia Tech is strictly a scheme. There’s option, there’s old school. But teams now ... are being more creative.”
The Seminoles, who already have clinched the Atlantic Division, have rotated Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. behind Freeman at tailback in a series of blowouts. FSU is averaging 211.6 yards on the ground, its best output since 1995.
The Blue Devils, who can earn a matchup with FSU by beating the Tar Heels on Saturday, average 179.3 yards, their best total since 1977. Yet they have no one gaining more than 48 yards per game, with Cutcliffe rotating Jela Duncan, Josh Snead and Shaquille Powell at running back along with quarterback Brandon Connette.
In the Nov. 16 win against Miami, that group helped Duke run for 358 yards, the program’s best total in 19 years and the most ever by a Cutcliffe-coached team.
Of course, it helps to have a reliable runner at quarterback, too.
Connette has a Duke-record 30 career rushing touchdowns, including go-ahead scores in the second half of two wins this month and four TDs against the Hurricanes.
Clemson’s Tajh Boyd has run for eight touchdowns this year as the team’s top short-yardage threat. At Maryland, C.J. Brown has six career 100-yard rushing games, most among active ACC quarterbacks.
“I think what’s changed and what’s evolved in football is the quarterback position,” Maryland coach Randy Edsall said. “ ... You’re seeing more dual threat quarterbacks in the ACC than you’ve seen previously. There are a lot more of those kinds of quarterbacks.”
The Tar Heels have seen a little of everything. Their rushing output has dipped significantly after losing star runner Gio Bernard to the NFL, forcing them to start three tailbacks in a season-long search for a lead runner.
Yet they’re still averaging more yards rushing (139) than they did anytime between 2005-11.
“We’ve just got a team that can use more than one back,” dual-threat UNC quarterback Marquise Williams said. “You see it around the whole league, that everybody’s using more than one back and being successful.”