DURHAM, N.C. — When the season began, it seemed like Duke had a great chance to make its second straight bowl game under coach David Cutcliffe. But after losing starting quarterback Anthony Boone in the second game to a broken collarbone and getting off to a 2-2 start, the optimism surrounding the program diminished considerably.
Now, though, Boone might be on the cusp of returning to the lineup and even if he isn’t, the offense is clicking under backup quarterback Brandon Connette. Duke is 3-2 and this week’s matchup with Navy looms large. The Midshipmen are 3-1 on the season and are a perennial bowl team.
This is a game Duke needs.
“We’re 3-2 right now. Obviously it’s not terrible, but it’s not where we want to be,” senior defensive end Justin Foxx said. “We know we have to stop (Navy’s running game) first off as a defense, limit their rushing numbers and let everything come off that.”
Duke has defended the option offense before already this season when Georgia Tech came to Durham and won 38-14. Seeing the option twice in a season can help the second time around, according to senior cornerback Ross Cockrell.
“It’s a little bit slower. The first time you play it, it kind of catches you off guard and then the second time, the game slows down for you,” he said. “So I think we’ll do a much better job this week because we have seen it and we’ve gotten to practice against it for so long. But Navy’s going to present different challenges than Georgia Tech, and we’ve got to be ready for that.”
All option offenses are not created equal, and Georgia Tech boasts a few more athletes than Navy does. But that doesn’t mean the Midshipmen won’t present unique challenges to a Duke defense that has struggled to get stops this year. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is having a great season, and he’s going to keep the ball on runs probably more often than Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee does.
“The quarterback is the best player they have. He’s a flat-out ballplayer,” Cockrell said. “So you’ve got to attack his hips. He likes to cut back. He’s pretty shifty. You’ve got to pull your trigger, force him to make different moves and swarm the ball.”
Navy’s wins aren’t exactly mind-blowing — at Indiana, Delaware and Air Force with a loss at Western Kentucky — but neither are Duke’s (N.C. Central, Memphis and Troy). The Blue Devils had a bye this past week, and they spent it practicing against the option attack from the scout team, often going live with the scout guys cutting defensive linemen.
But their own quarterback question remains a big one.
Connette has filled in admirably for Boone and gets better with each game, totaling 803 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns in his last two starts. He hasn’t always made the right decisions throwing the ball, but after four interceptions against Pitt he threw just one against Troy two weeks ago. As Cutcliffe said, though, Boone was the starter for a reason.
The coach called Boone’s status “day-to-day,” and the medical staff is evaluating him each day after he’s done work to see how he’s feeling and how much he’s healed and how strong he’s getting.
It’s a matter of when Boone comes back, not if. But it’s not like there’s a game to ease him back into game speed coming up on the schedule. Should Duke beat Navy, it will have to find three more wins in its final six games that will all be against ACC opponents, including road games against Virginia and Virginia Tech in addition to hosting Miami. N.C. State at home, at Wake Forest and at North Carolina are all more likely wins than those, but still far from a sure thing.
And so Cutcliffe and the Duke staff want to be sure that Boone is ready to go whenever they put him back out there, because there’s no margin for error at this point for the Blue Devils.
“When he gets back to where he’s playing better than Brandon (Connette), then he’s the guy,” Cutcliffe said. “But the beauty of it is … Brandon Connette is really getting better, which pushes the envelope with Anthony, and then also puts us in position to use Brandon Connette in various ways as we move forward with the rest of the season.