When Peyton Manning endorses an offensive coach, it carries significant weight.
Manning frequently turns to Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, which shows that if there is one certainty about Duke football, it’s that Cutcliffe is a brilliant offensive mind.
Though Cutcliffe doesn’t have a prototypical pocket passer like Manning in his arsenal at Duke, he has two talented redshirt junior quarterbacks playing well this season. Brandon Connette and Anthony Boone have both been efficient and effective in the backfield this season, and their success has helped the Blue Devils to a strong 5-2 start.
With a combination of Boone and Connette at quarterback, the Blue Devils are currently scoring 35.7 points per game. The offense garnered special praise from Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer.
“I think (they’re) the most efficient offense (we’ve seen) since Alabama,” Beamer said. “They’ve got talent and they’re well coached.”
Brandon Connette has been the steady force all season for Duke, having played in all seven games and accumulating a pass efficiency rating of 163.9, good for ninth in the country and one spot behind Alabama’s A.J. McCarron. Connette’s ability to make the big throw but also keep the ball as a runner makes him tough to defend.
But last season against the Hokies, Connette left the game after just his second carry due to an injury and did not return. This will be the first time that the Hokies’ defense faces Connette for significant game time.
This season it was Boone who suffered an injury that cost him playing time. After breaking his collarbone in Duke’s second game of the season at Memphis, Boone missed four games while Connette was the sole quarterback.
The Devils posted a 2-2 record during that stretch, but the offense clicked well when Boone returned against Navy. Boone isn’t quite the same runner as Connette, but he will keep the ball often enough to make a defense honor a play fake. His ability as a passer changes how Duke attacks the defense.
Boone went 31 for 38 in a marvelous return from injury, leading Duke to the 35-7 win. After another win, this one courtesy of 35 unanswered points against Virginia in a 35-22 victory, the Blue Devils will look to keep rolling in Blacksburg.
But the Hokies know this Duke offense is multi-talented.
“They’ve got a lot of playmakers on the field,” said freshman cornerback Kendall Fuller. “They’ll throw it deep on you; they’re not afraid to take some deep shots and they’ll always mix in the run and try to get their running game going. And from what I’ve seen they like to give number three the ball a lot, who is a big playmaker on the team.”
That number three, junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder, happens to be the leader in the ACC with 47 receptions on the season. Crowder stands just 5’9” but is quick and tough to bring down in space.
“Those guys are shifty,” said redshirt senior linebacker Tariq Edwards. “They’ve got good receivers, good backs, and I think they’ve been playing very well.”
It’s hard to focus on one guy in the Duke attack because they have so many contributors on offense. The Blue Devils feature six players that have carried the ball 20 or more times and three players with 20 or more receptions on the season. But Virginia Tech knows it has to be ready to stop all of the playmakers that Cutcliffe can utilize.
“They have some weapons that they use well and we have to be ready for that,” said senior cornerback Kyle Fuller.
The good news for Virginia Tech is that the team is well rested. The Hokies are coming off a bye week after starting the season with seven straight games.
Though the team has been playing well, winning its last six games, the bye week was a welcome break.
“I mean it always feels good to have some rest,” Edwards said. “We could go into the next game, week to week, keep on constantly playing, but for your body to get some type of rest, especially people with nagging injuries or with nicks and different pain, it’s always good to get some kind of rest.”
And it appears the most rested player of all will finally take the field for Virginia Tech. When asked about his chances of playing for the first time this season against Duke and if he was ready, redshirt senior cornerback Antone Exum sounded optimistic.
“I think so, I think so," Exum said. "That’s how I’m preparing (to play), that’s my mindset and it’s looking good right now for me to be out there on Saturday.”
With the status of freshman cornerback Brandon Facyson still uncertain after he sustained a concussion on Sunday, Exum’s return is timely for what has been a stellar group thus far this season.
With all of the weapons at the disposal of Cutcliffe, Boone and Connette, the Hokies’ defense will need another great performance to push the winning streak to seven games.