Although it was Duke’s defense that clinched the game in the fourth quarter for the Blue Devils, it was the offense that stepped up in the first half, registering 28 points and keeping the lead away from Troy.
After losing to Pittsburgh in a 58-55 shootout last week, Duke’s offense was determined not to be outscored against a Troy team that was held to seven points in the Trojans's last game. The offense grabbed a first-quarter lead Saturday and never let go on its way to a 38-31 victory.
"We came out on offense the first two series and went three-and-out trying to find a rhythm," redshirt junior quarterback Brandon Connette said. "But once we found our rhythm we just got on a roll. It was four straight drives with touchdowns, and you can’t really ask for much more than that on offense."
Connette posted huge yardage numbers for the second straight week, racking up 324 yards through the air and another 55 on the ground en route to five touchdowns.
Connette’s biggest issue this season has been his accuracy, which has led to several costly turnovers in previous contests. After tossing four interceptions against Pittsburgh in last week’s loss, the redshirt junior threw just one pick this week.
“He took care of the football, which is his number one job,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “[He made] good, solid decisions. There’s a lot of decisions made in our run game and he managed that well.”
As the Blue Devils (3-2) racked up 514 yards of total offense against the Trojans (2-3), Connette completed 71.2 percent of his passes, but Cutcliffe said the signal-caller's completion rate could have been even higher.
“[Connette] had a couple of drops that would have been huge,” Cutcliffe said. “Unfortunately he barely missed Jamison [Crowder] on a couple posts. But he also hit Johnell Barnes on one of the finest plays maybe I’ve seen since we’ve been here.”
Connette threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers. His first was a 7-yard score to sophomore wide receiver Max McCaffrey, who was all alone on the right side of the end zone. The redshirt junior also found wide receiver Jamison Crowder for a 60-yard score and threw a 9-yard dump pass that sophomore running back Jela Duncan ran in for the touchdown.
“The amount of weapons we have is awesome,” Connette said. “It’s real comforting whenever you’re quarterback. Especially on third-and-20, to just be able to throw it up to a guy, especially a young one, and have the confidence that he’s going to go make a play.”
Speed was also a key to Duke’s early success. The Blue Devils' four first-half scoring drives averaged 5.5 plays, 76 yards and 2:02 per drive. This type of explosive, hurry-up offense kept the Trojan defense on its heels.
“With the quick tempo, it was hard for [Troy’s defense] to stay in the game,” Crowder said. “Guys were trying to fake injuries, or whatever you want to call it. It was really tough for them. So every time we got a big play, we tried to get back on the line and run another play.”
Duke's quickest scoring drive of the afternoon came in the second quarter, when Connette led his team's offense 94 yards in three plays and only 46 seconds.
The Blue Devils were leading 14-7 with 12:29 left in the first half when Trojan punter Will Scott pinned Duke at its own 6-yard line. After consecutive completions to Johnell Barnes for 23 yards and Isaac Blakeney for 11, Connette took the third snap of the drive and hit Crowder in stride as the junior receiver took it in 60 yards for the score.
Barnes had as much of a two-reception breakout performance as one can have. The true freshman hauled in a pair of receptions for 74 yards, including a 50-yard catch that set up Duncan’s 9-yard touchdown reception that pushed Duke's lead to 28-14.
The running game was also a strong point for Duke. The ground attack was led by Josh Snead, who gashed the Trojan defense for 108 yards on 11 carries, including a 53-yard burst that led to the Blue Devils’ opening score. Connette added 55 yards on the ground and two scores.
Duncan contributed 29 yards on eight carries, but was sidelined with an injury in the first quarter. He returned to the game and reeled in a touchdown reception before returning to the sideline for the rest of the contest.
Although Duncan's injury status remains unclear, the Blue Devils have a reason to be encouraged after a 190-yard day on the ground in which the team averaged 4.9 yards per carry. With a bye week ahead to mend injuries and a strong showing in the rushing attack against Troy, Cutcliffe is optimistic for Duke's next game against Navy.
"[Snead] did [step up]," Cutcliffe said. "I don't know how long Jela's going to be [out due to injury] or what the circumstances surrounding that one are just yet, but I have great confidence in Juwan Thompson and I have great confidence in Shaquille Powell, if need be. Again, we have an open date coming which is good."