When starting quarterback Anthony Boone went down with an injury back in week two, I was terrified for this team.
I liked Brandon Connette; he is energetic and explosive and everything you would want in a situational quarterback, but I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about him as the main guy under center. Could he even consistently complete passes? Would the magic he seemed to bring to every game wear thin if he was trotted out there every single play?
Connette took a flamethrower to most of the doubt I had, going 14-21 for 198 yards and two touchdowns during Duke’s 28-14 victory at Memphis. Still, I wasn’t entirely sold on him. Memphis is a pretty poor team and, while the defense was likely somewhat prepared for Connette, they probably weren’t primed to face the more athletic quarterback for an extended amount of time. He was impressive, but I needed to see more.
Connette showed me, and everyone else, over the next three weeks. The junior threw for 769 yards, ran for 171 more, and had 12 total touchdowns against the likes of Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Troy. He struggled with turnovers; he threw five interceptions during the three-game span, but those seemed to be more of a result of growing pains, if anything.
What stood out most to me was the rate at which he was connecting with receivers:
@ Memphis: 14-21, 66.7%
vs Georgia Tech: 15-28, 53.6%
vs Pittsburgh: 21-32, 65.6%
vs Troy: 20-28, 71.4%
For the most part, he has performed tremendously above and beyond what I expected from him. The average team this season is completing around 59.5% of their passes; Connette has completed 64.4% of his. His performance against Georgia Tech is a bit of a combo-breaker, but the Yellow Jackets defense has been particularly stingy this season, so I won’t hold it against him.
Unfortunately, Connette suffered an injury that held him out of Duke’s contest against Navy back on October 12th. Without hesitation, the Blue Devils reverted to the now-healthy Boone as their main guy under center.
This was okay. Boone was the starter heading into the season and there was never the slightest mention of a quarterback battle brewing, even with Connette shredding defenses on a weekly basis. All Boone had to do was play pretty decent and Connette could slip back into his role as ‘the Phantom’ and we’d all go on living our lives as if nothing had changed.
If only it were that simple.
After a promising showing against Navy that saw Boone go 31-38 for 295 yards and three touchdowns, the junior has struggled in the most frustrating of ways. Against Virginia, he slumped his way out of the gates, sitting at 4-14 for 29 yards at one point. He would eventually rebound and finish 21-39 for 245 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but this was after his early barrage of misfires and misreads put Duke in a 22-0 hole. Granted, it wasn’t all his fault–no one played particularly well in the early stages–but his struggles were the most evident. It also didn’t help his case that Connette stepped in and scored two touchdowns (one through the air and one via the ground) in a limited amount of playing time. There was even this:
#Duke‘s Cutcliffe said they did seriously considering putting Brandon Connette in for Boone at the beginning. But he turned it around
— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) October 20, 2013
The few mentions that Boone may have been playing hurt and the fact that he was just a few weeks removed from suffering a broken collarbone had me forget about the early struggles, though. As long as he got it turned around for Duke’s big game against Virginia Tech, all would be forgiven.
In what was one of the more disastrous passing performances by a quarterback this season, Boone went 7-25 for 107 yards and four interceptions. Yes, Virginia Tech boasts one of the nation’s strongest defenses, but that doesn’t excuse the constant overthrows, underthrows, misreads, and poor judgements we saw from him all game long. Had it not been for a couple of those picks, Duke may have easily pulled it off, rather than the hanging-on-for-dear-life ending our poor hearts were subjected to. Regardless, it wasn’t a complete disaster, as I pointed out on Twitter:
Props to QB Anthony Boone. No matter how bad things got yesterday, he continued to play fearless. Found a way to win with his legs.
— Ball Durham (@Ball_Durham) October 27, 2013
In no way am I saying that he led Duke to victory–all the glory goes to every freaking member of that Duke defense–but he found a way to be effective in a game where things clearly weren’t working with his arm.
The worst part of it all, though, was the lack of Connette in a game where nothing was working for the Blue Devil offense; he finished with a stat sheet that read two carries for ten yards. When Duke’s phantom finally got a chance to make a difference on a 4th-and-1 in a game-clinching spot, he showed us every reason why we all wanted him in the game so badly in the first place. Lined up in shotgun, Connette snared a high snap out of the air, spun off a tackler in the backfield, spun off another tackler in the backfield, planted his hand to keep himself from stumbling, and launched across the first-down marker.
It was the kind of play that leaves your jaw dropped, wondering how the hell a human being could actually pull off something that impressive. It was also the kind of play that made you realize why so many of us consider Connette to be the MVP of this Duke team so far this season, and why he could be one of the nation’s more dangerous players if utilized to the fullest.
Sure, he doesn’t possess the kind of arm strength that Boone does, and he probably doesn’t have the future NFL QB status of a Sean Renfree or a Thad Lewis, but his relentlessness and playmaking abilities certainly deserves a much larger role, especially when Duke is struggling as bad as they were in Blacksburg on Saturday.
As of now, all signs point to Boone still being the guy in Durham, for both the immediate and extended future, and I have no problem with that. When he is sharp, the offense moves well under him, leading to more plays and more touches for everyone (including Connette). If he doesn’t get back on track soon, though, how much longer until everyone is crying for the Phantom to return to his role as ‘QB1′?