Duke's Connette still learning, but getting comfortable at QB
This one boggles conventional anatomy.
For Brandon Connette, the feet connected to the brain, which connected to the arm, which led to a memorable day.
In his second game as Duke’s starting quarterback this season, Connette threw four touchdown passes while completing 21 of 32 passes (66 percent) for 323 yards.
That level of production dwarfed his work one week earlier against Georgia Tech, when he completed 15 of 28 passes (54 percent) for only 122 yards.
What made the difference for the redshirt junior? Comfort.
In his former role as a specialty player in third-down and goal-line situations, Connette was a run-first player.
Against Pittsburgh, Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper called for Connette running plays on the first plays of the Blue Devils’ first two drives. Connette gained 18 on one, seven on another en rote to a 101-yard rushing day.
“A lot of times in the past, whenever I would go in the games, that’s what I would do, run the ball,” Connette said. “That’s what I was comfortable with. Just getting me into that mode of running the ball allowed me to have more comfort. That made me feel more comfortable with the game and it opened up more for us.”
Game plans on both sides were wide open at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday. Pittsburgh won 58-55 in the second-highest scoring game in ACC history.
Connette’s four interceptions, clearly a blemish on his otherwise strong performance, played a role in Duke losing despite all that offense. The Panthers’ final touchdown came when linebacker Anthony Gonzalez returned a fourth quarter interception for a score.
Connette doesn’t hide from his mistakes on the plays. He credits Pittsburgh defenders with making good plays on two of them. The other two, he said, were simply bad reads on his part.
“Throwing into coverage where I shouldn’t have been throwing the ball,” Connette said. “I had no business throwing it there.”
But, going forward, he knows the adjustments he needs to make for better outcomes on all four plays.
“There are plays where the offense will win,” Connette said. “There are plays where the defense will win. What we have to try to do is make it where, when the defense does win a play, it’s an incompletion. That’s their win, not them ending up with the ball.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe maintains full belief in Connette’s talents as the Blue Devils deal with life without starting quarterback Anthony Boone. A broken right clavicle has Boone sidelined indefinitely and he’s not expected back before the end of October.
Connette’s progression is key to Duke (2-2, 0-2 ACC) having any chance of returning to a bowl game this season.
“He’s continuing to get more and more comfortable back there,” Cutcliffe said. “He had four touchdown passes, and unfortunately four interceptions. He’s seeing the field. He’s gaining. He’s a fierce competitor and a great young man.”
The Pittsburgh game marked a mental change for Connette. When Boone was injured during a game at Memphis on Sept. 7, Connette had to jump in mid-game. He led Duke to a 28-14 win.
The following week, the full weight of being the starting quarterback hit him.
“I think going in to the Georgia Tech game, I really felt the pressure of being the starter,” Connette said. “Anthony is no longer there. I felt like I wanted to make plays for the team but at the same time I think, in the back of my head, I didn’t want to hurt the team. So I think I was conservative with my throws. If someone wasn’t open I would throw it behind them rather than zipping it in there. I think I played way too conservative in the Georgia Tech game.”
Connette and the Blue Devils turned it loose against Pittsburgh, partly out of necessity. The Panthers jumped to a 27-7 lead and led by 23 in the second half before Connette rallied Duke.
“We did a lot of upper-level things,” Connette said. “I wouldn’t just say good plays, we made a lot of great plays as an offense across the board. Whether it was Jamison (Crowder) making an incredible over-the-shoulder catch, whether it was Max McCaffrey making incredible catches on the goal line, his catch on the corner route. We had people make great plays on Saturday.”
The task beginning against Troy on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPN3) is for high-level plays to come with fewer mistakes because Connette will be handling the job for the foreseeable future.
Freshman Parker Boehme is the No. 2 quarterback but the Blue Devils have yet to play him, hoping they can get through the season and redshirt him.
Redshirt freshman Thomas Sirk is still recovering from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon he suffered last February. Cutcliffe said Sirk is “getting better pretty rapidly” but has yet to be cleared to take snaps in practice.
“He’s so fast that I do not want to bring him back too soon from the Achilles and compromise his speed at all,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re going to get him well.”