DURHAM — After Anthony Boone broke his right collarbone on Sept. 7at Memphis, he was hopeful he could return for the Oct. 19 game against Virginia. That way, he’d play in Duke’s final six ACC games. But when Brandon Connette tripped and fell Thursday after practice and had his ankle get worse instead of better as the Navy game approached, Boone was pressed into action.
The result? Boone set career-highs in pass attempts, completions, and passing yards as the Blue Devils downed the Midshipmen 35-7 Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. It’s the first time Duke (4-2) has gone undefeated in non-conference play since 1994.
Boone finished 31-for-38 (.816) for 295 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad, considering he didn’t find out he was starting until 10 minutes before the game.
“He found out he was starting about the same time I did,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “I know how tough Brandon Connette was, and he comes to us and says, ‘I can’t go. I can’t play.’”
After Duke’s walk-through Thursday, Connette jogged off the field with teammates, like he always did. The group of guys may have been running in a zigzag pattern – boys will be boys – and Connette got tangled up and fell. On Friday, though, he was well enough to work at full speed for about 45 minutes, looking OK, not great, Cutcliffe said, but the staff still expected Connette to be ready to go. Just to be sure, though, Cutcliffe told Boone to prepare like he was the starter.
“I said, ‘Anthony, you’ve got to go back and re-look at Navy,’” Cutcliffe said. “’You’ve got to really lock in on protection. You’re playing now, get it in your mind.’ That’s more challenging than people think,” Cutcliffe said, noting the Midshipmen (3-2) play with three down linemen and have several backers moving around in unusual positions until the ball is snapped.
Connette was in the training room at 6 a.m., getting treatment on his ankle. He warmed up with starting center Matt Skura in warm-ups while Boone took snaps from backup John Coleman. Connette moved OK, but he surprised the staff when he said he couldn’t go.
“We had done a lot of work all week long, how we would play if it was Connette, how we would play if it was Anthony and how we would play if it was Parker Boehme,” Cutcliffe said. “Pretty amazing performance by Anthony, considering he found out right at the end of pregame warm-ups that we was starting.”
The game plan called for lots of quick slants and bubble screens for the Blue Devils athletes to take on the Midshipmen in space. A few of his bubbles were overthrown. And on Duke’s initial series, the Blue Devils had fourth-and-1 on the Navy 20, and Boone didn’t see an open Braxton Deaver in the flat and instead rolled out of the pocket and ran out of bounds for a 2-yard loss. He didn’t want to take an unnecessary hit, he said, and he thought he was a little closer to the first-down marker.
After the second series, though, Boone told Cutcliffe to relay to offensive coordinator Kurt Roper that he was capable of taking a hit, that he was really, really good. (“I said, ‘I appreciate that,’ ” Cutcliffe said). And on Duke’s third drive, Boone capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a 27-yard pass to Issac Blakeney.
“After the first quarter, I felt very comfortable,” Boone said. “The first couple series was kind of like flying bullets. I had to get used to things flying around, the speed of the game because I’ve been working with the 2s for the most part and have had limited reps in practice. After a while, it just came back to the natural feel of the game.”
Perhaps his finest throw was on the next series, a 3-yard fade to Max McCaffrey in the left corner of the end zone. That put Duke ahead 14-7.
The defense, which yielded its fewest points against an Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since a 10-7 win at Vanderbilt in 2008, forced a fumble with Navy on the Duke 6-yard line. That was a huge momentum swing right before the half, and the defense gave up only 73 second-half yards (and no points) after that.
Boone continued to do his thing. He had realized he was close to being physically ready to play at the beginning of the week, and he proved he was Saturday.
“The whole week, I was feeling good,” Boone said. “The next thing you know, it was we might get you in for a couple of reps. Mentally, I just had to prepare myself just in case Brandon went down. If anything happens, there’s a lot of freaky things that happen in football.”
Like tripping on the way into the locker room.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley