DuPree column: Bottom line, Duke needed to score 59

Sep. 21, 2013 @ 10:30 PM

Brandon Connette’s analysis was simple after Duke’s 58-55 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium.

“We needed to score 59,” the Blue Devils’ junior quarterback said after completing 21 of 32 passes, including four for touchdowns. He is the first Duke quarterback to surpass 100 yards rushing and 300 passing in a game, finishing with 101 and 323, respectively.

But Connette also threw four interceptions, and Anthony Gonzalez returned the final one for a 37-yard touchdown with 8:30 remaining to put the game out of reach.

It was that sort of day for the Blue Devils, who fell behind by at least 20 points in each half only to reign in the Panthers.

“We really were moving the ball on them, it was just that the interceptions were stopping our drives,” Connette said. “We knew, as an offense, that we were moving the ball. We were controlling the line of scrimmage; we were controlling what happened on each drive.

“We just needed to minimize those mistakes, and then once we did, we put up a lot of points.”

The first interception came on Duke’s initial possession after a Pitt scoring drive, as Jason Hendricks grabbed a pass intended for Max McCaffrey. The Blue Devils blocked a field goal attempt to regain possession, but Connette was intercepted three plays later when K’Waun Williams picked off a pass at the Duke 28-yard line.

“On that first interception, I knew what the coverage was and I was just trying to force one where I don’t need to force it,” Connette said. “(On the second), I was checking it down to a running back because they covered everyone else. ... I thought the (weak-side) linebacker did a great job of cutting underneath the route, and he made a nice play.

“Sometimes, the other team makes better plays that you do. You just have to get better.”

It only took Pitt two plays to make it 13-0 with 4:11 left in the first quarter.

But Connette bounced back, rushing for 37 yards during a 78-yard drive that was capped by a 16-yard touchdown pass to McCaffrey to get the Blue Devils on the scoreboard and out of their offensive funk.

“For some quarterbacks, it would have been in their heads,” Connette said of the early interceptions. “But it’s not something that bothered me really — you’re frustrated with yourself, but you have to let it go and just move on to the next play.

“I think (offensive coordinator) Kurt Roper does a good job of teaching us how to stay mentally calm when you make errors. One thing you have to do is go and tell your teammates on the sideline, ‘Hey, that’s my fault. ... When we get the ball back, we’re going to move the ball and we’re going to score.’ That’s what we did after the first two interceptions. ... We moved the ball for the rest of the game pretty consistently.”

Pitt scored on its next two possessions to take a 27-7 lead, but Connette’s 62-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder was followed by a 7-yard touchdown run and an 82-yard punt return, both by Crowder, to trim the margin to 30-28 with 2:55 left in the half.

“I’m really proud of the team, the way that we played, the way that we kept fighting in all facets of the game — special teams, defense and offense,” Connette said. “We just kept on fighting no matter what the score was.”

Pitt scored with 24 seconds left in the half for a 37-28 lead, then tacked on two more touchdowns in the third quarter to pull away 51-28 at the 3:18 mark.

That’s when Duke teams of the past often would have had the score become comical.

Instead, Connette connected with Brandon Braxton on the first play from scrimmage for a 75-yard touchdown and opened the fourth quarter by capping an eight-play, 79-yard drive to trim the margin to 51-41 with 13:36 left.

Pitt intercepted Connette’s first pass of the next possession but was unable to sustain the drive, then Gonzalez’s fateful pickoff ended the string of errors.

“Part of it is experience — learning how to manage when you take those kinds of risks and when you don’t,” Connette said. “It’s part of the learning curve, but I’m really tough on myself because I think I should be past that part of the learning curve.

“I’m more of a veteran. I don’t feel like I should be making those types of mistakes, so it’s frustrating for me.”

Connette drove the Blue Devils down the field, completing four passes including a 6-yard touchdown strike to Braxton Deaver with 5:30 left to pull within 58-48. Then he capped the final possession with a 4-yard run for his second rushing touchdown of the game, giving him responsibility for six touchdowns to tie a Duke record most recently accomplished by Thaddeus Lewis against N.C. State in 2009.

“We just kept on trying to play the way we thought we should play and, unfortunately, just came a couple of plays short,” Connette said. “But I’m proud to be in the locker room with that character of people. ... I think it was more about what we learned about ourselves as an offense — being down by so many points at so many different points of the game, the resiliency we showed.’

It’s worth remembering that this was Connette’s second game as the starting quarterback after Anthony Boone suffered a broken collarbone. Duke coach David Cutcliffe wasn’t completely pleased by his quarterback’s performance, but he also knows who delivered the passes that kept the Blue Devils’ close.

“What I like most about Brandon is that, as a person, he doesn’t need a defining moment — he knows exactly who he is,” Cutcliffe said. “I think as a quarterback, once you ... throw pick sixes and you get burned and you still compete at the level he competed, that is a defining moment as a football player.

“His teammates should take notes. It’s very difficult to be the one to do that. ... You’re at the head of the class as a quarterback. He got better, and he will continue to get better. I’m a believer in Brandon Connette. I’d get in a foxhole with him anytime. He is a special kind of man.”

Connette said that he wouldn’t have believed it if someone told him before the game that Duke would score 55 points and lose.

“After the game, I kind of looked up at it and (thought), ‘That’s a lot of points to be scored in a ballgame,’” Connette said. “It’s two powerful offenses going against each other. I’m sure it was a fun game to watch.”

He’s right about that, even if some may overlook his positive contributions.

You may contact Jimmy DuPree at jdupree@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6674.