On Saturday, the Duke Blue Devils come to Lane Stadium in search of their first win over Virginia Tech since the Hokies joined the ACC in 2004. Over the last couple of seasons, the series has featured some close games featuring the innovative passing attack of the Blue Devils matched up against the superior talent of the Hokie defense.
Traditionally, Duke has featured a pro-style passing attack, operated by quarterbacks like Thaddeus Lewis and Sean Renfree. This season, head coach David Cutcliffe has changed his system from a passing oriented spread offense to a balanced spread no huddle heavily focused on the running ability of his two quarterbacks. While each quarterback has strengths that lend themselves to specific types of plays, they operate interchangeably and both can run the full assortment of read option, triple option (dive, keep, or throw to the flat) and inverted veer that come with the spread.
Redshirt junior Anthony Boone (#7) is the starting quarterback for the Blue Devils and takes most of the snaps. He may look short (6-0), spindly (skinny arms and legs), and a little chunky (230 pounds), but Boone is a dangerous prototypical spread quarterback who excels running the read option.
Virginia Tech struggled to contain both ECU's Shane Carden and Marshall's Rakeem Cato on the read play, and neither was as comfortable, assertive, or athletic as Boone. Boone also rides the mesh point really well, and causes defenders to bite on the fake so much that it often pulls the camera to the wrong player on film. The Hokies will be forced to have one defender account for Boone on every read play, and the other five defensive front players will be required to stop the dive without additional assistance. If the defensive end starts to crash inside, Boone could rack up some big chunk yardage on the edge.
Duke's passing offense relies heavily on high volume short passes and screens. Their lead receiver is Jamison Crowder (#3), a whirling dervish at flanker who will line up wide and in the slot. He gets most of the touches on screen plays.
His jitterbug quickness facilitates big plays in small spaces. He also is Duke's primary deep threat.
Crowder is also one of the best punt returners in the ACC. Crowder already has 56 catches on the season. Nobody else on Duke's roster has more than 25. Outside of Crowder, Duke's receivers tend not to impress on film, but they don't drop the football and get open thanks to play-action. Five have more than two touchdown catches on the season.
While Boone prefers to throw a high volume of screens, when he does go downfield he is much more comfortable looking for slants, crossing routes, and slant-and-go's (sluggos) in the middle of the field. He throws a pretty slant off play-action.
The offense also features spread standards like the post-wheel/post flat combination routes that East Carolina ran repeatedly. Boone completes a very high percentage of passes (69.9%), but short throws have aided his average. His biggest weakness, and one that Bud Foster must exploit, is arm strength. He can throw the ball on a wheel route or a go route after a double move down the sideline, but he does not have the arm to attack the Hokie corners on deep out, curl, and post routes, especially to the wide side of the field. Against Boone, anticipate that Kendall Fuller and Detrick Bonner will press the inside slot receivers and try to force them to take outside releases. On the outside, expect the Hokie corners to play at least 7-10 yards off the receiver. In doing so, they protect themselves against Crowder's speed deep, and it allows a ball-hawking corner like Brandon Facyson to look at the quarterback and jump those deeper routes when the ball doesn't have extreme velocity. Boone does not throw many interceptions, but I think Foster will force him to throw on the outside, and if he does, Facyson and Kyle Fuller will make some plays.
As steady as Boone is, Duke has a wildcard in backup quarterback Brandon Connette (#18). Connette is a 6-2, 225-pound junior who looks much more physically imposing than Boone on film. He is Duke's primary short yardage rushing option. Coach Cutcliffe loves to run no-huddle, and sneak Connette on the field for Boone in short yardage while the defense scrambles to change personnel. In those situations, Connette excels at running the quarterback power lead and inverted veer. He is not as adept at riding the mesh point as Boone, but he is a powerful inside runner who almost never goes down at first contact. Let's take a look at how Duke uses Connette as a runner.
On the previous two plays, Boone completed a deep pass to Crowder, then rand read option for a decent gain on first down. Cutcliffe sneaks Connette on to the field on second down to run a counter version of the inverted veer.
Unlike the Hokies, who pull a guard in the direction that the running back goes on the sweep, Duke pulls a guard from the opposite side and leads up, with Connette following.
It almost acts as a counter (and would be an interesting option to incorporate for Logan Thomas.) Connette runs over the the UVa safety with ease for a touchdown.
With Boone as the starter, Connette is mostly used as a short yardage runner and checks in on 3rd-and-short and goal line situations. But, the coaching staff can't fail to recognize that Connette has been the starter most of the season and is just as capable of throwing as Boone. Here, UVa has stopped Connette on a 3rd-and-short while grasping desperately to a 5-point lead. Connette stays in the game on fourth down, and the Wahoos jump the counter veer.
Instead of turning up on the linebacker, the pulling tight end slips into the flat wide open, and Connette makes the short easy throw for the first down. The tight end does the rest against a deflated, Cool Whip soft, defense and strolls into the end zone like he's on a nice sunset walk at Monticello. Boone was still in the game as a wide receiver, on the other side of the formation, but ran downfield and threw a diving block right at the goal line. Duke's kids will bring maximum effort. Want to see the Hoos in shock and pain? Feel free to rewind the play again, and again, and again. It doesn't get old.
Both quarterbacks are excellent football players, but both have weaknesses that can be exploited. When Boone is on the field, the Hokies must force Boone to beat them on long throws to the wide side of the field, especially deep outs. If Duke can move the ball by hitting slants and sluggos in front of the safeties, it will be a long day. Boone is not prone to turnovers, but he has a history of injuries and is returning sooner than expected from a broken collarbone.
Connette played very well as the starter during Boone's injury. He lead Duke to several wins and put over 50 points on the scoreboard against Pitt. However, he is much more careless throwing the football than Boone. He threw four interceptions against Pitt, six on the season, and struggled with his accuracy against Georgia Tech.
It's absolutely critical that the Hokie defense successfully defend the run using the nickel package, and they recognize which quarterback is in the game and adjust accordingly. Duke will mix and match both running inverted veer, power, and read option and attempt to get the Hokie defensive ends reading plays instead of attacking. If Hopkins, Maddy, Williams, and Baron can take away the dive, it will greatly limit Duke's ability to option the ends.
Anticipate that Bud Foster will use his standard formula for challenging spreads. He will press the slot receivers to take away slants and screens, and both Kyle Fuller and Brandon Facyson will play off the receivers and look to read the quarterback and make plays. Expect Duke to try and get Crowder in mismatches against linebackers and the two Hokie safeties through alignment, especially against Kyshoen Jarrett on the boundary. Foster always blitzes more than I expect him to, but I think the Hokies will be well served to limit the number of blitzes and try to get pressure with their relentless front four.
Duke has a vastly improved offense that runs the ball just as effectively as they throw it. Their backup quarterback leads the team in carries (69), and even though Boone's play may look awkward at times, they are a dangerous offense that can dink and dunk their way down the field and then hit Crowder over the top with a big play. The Hokies have met every challenge when playing teams that can effectively run the football. There are weaknesses that can be taken advantage of, but the Hokies must play sharp assignment football and get effective pressure on Boone. Duke's defense isn't particularly impressive (UVA melted down versus Duke suddenly becoming a defensive juggernaut.) The Hokies should be able to move the football well. If the defense can keep the Duke offense off the field, the offense should score enough points to win.