Entering the Hurricanes’ conference opener against Georgia Tech Saturday, all eyes were on quarterback Stephen Morris’ injured ankle and on the Yellow Jackets’ throwback option attack.
But Duke Johnson stole the spotlight.
The fan-favorite running back gave the 47,008 at Sun Life Stadium plenty of opportunities to yell, “Duuuuuuuke,” piling up 184 rushing yards — good for nine first downs — on a career-high 22 carries.
Johnson was just two yards shy of his career high, which he set earlier this year against FAU.
“He did a great job,” head coach Al Golden said. “I had it written on my notes that it’s going to be a Duke Johnson game, and it was.”
The sophomore sensation set the tone early in the game, taking his first carry for 33 yards, and he continued his dominance throughout the game. When the team needed him the most, he delivered behind an offensive line missing starting tackle Seantrel Henderson because of suspension.
With UM leading by just a point and 10:38 remaining in the game, Johnson carried the ball on five consecutive plays, earning two first downs and milking the clock. Two plays later Morris completed a 41-yard play action bomb to receiver Stacy Coley. Dallas Crawford, Johnson’s backup, finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
On the Canes’ next drive, Johnson’s number was again called for five more carries in a row, this time gaining 48 yards. When Johnson went to the sidelines for a breather, Crawford finished the drive and sealed the game with an 18-yard scoring run.
Despite the gaudy yardage output, Johnson failed to get into the end zone, ending his steak of eight consecutive games scoring a touchdown. After the game, Johnson said he wasn’t even aware that he had a touchdown streak, and he certainly didn’t mourn its ending. Instead, Johnson was glad to see Crawford do so well.
“Everybody eats. That’s something that we do in the backfield,” Johnson said. “If I’m tired, Dallas comes in. It doesn’t matter where the ball is or how close we are.”
Added Crawford: “Me and Duke like to complement each other. He had a great game today. I cleaned it up, but he put me in the position to get those touchdowns.”
Fumbles continue to be an issue for Johnson, who coughed one up again Saturday after spending Tuesday’s practice on the second team as penance for his ball-security issues last week against South Florida.
“He’s going to get it fixed. I don’t have a concern level,” Golden said. “Nobody works harder at it. It was unfortunate … He was very mindful of it late in the game, had two hands on the ball.”
The next time the Canes had the ball, Golden immediately dialed up another carry for Johnson.
“I know [Golden] has trust in me, the way he keeps putting me back in the game in big-time situations when the team needs me,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the fumble was “just one that slipped out,” and it didn’t bother him the rest of the game. When UM needed him to seal the game and use clock, he squeezed the ball with both hands and gashed the Georgia Tech defense.
“He gets the ball and he blows right by you,” said senior offensive lineman Brandon Linder. “He’s a special player. It’s ridiculous.”