Why the two-QB system must go

Brandon Connette is a capable goal line option, Claxton writes, but he should not split snaps with Renfree.
Brandon Connette is a capable goal line option, Claxton writes, but he should not split snaps with Renfree.

For 30 minutes Saturday afternoon, Duke played arguably its finest football in a decade.

Juwan Thompson was right when he said the Blue Devils should have beat Stanford. Unfortunately, there is a significant difference between “should have” and “could have,” and missed opportunities in Cardinal territory prevented Duke from achieving the latter.

The real issue against Stanford was the sporadic quarterback substitution pattern. The coaching staff insists on trotting Brandon Connette into the game in key situations to fake a handoff and run between the tackles. Guess what? The Cardinal defense was not surprised. Not once. Not ever.

“When you put him in, there are a lot of throws we can make,” head coach David Cutcliffe said after his team’s loss to the Cardinal. “We call a number of throws, I can’t remember the number, it’s situational. If it’s first-and-10, we throw as much as we’re going to run it. The problem wasn’t schematic at that point as much as not getting it done. We throw the football a lot out of that set.”

In fact, when the game was still within ten points, Connette touched the ball a total of four times—and threw one pass, an incompletion, from his own 24-yard line.

In all, Connette took five snaps in Stanford territory Saturday afternoon for a total loss of 16 yards.

So why send him in on second or third down for a single play in these critical situations? Everyone in the stadium knows he’s going to run, despite what Cutcliffe said after Saturday’s game.

Connette’s first three plays in Stanford’s half marred three solid drives that resulted in zero points after the coaching staff killed the momentum by removing the steady Sean Renfree just as he was getting into his rhythm.

On the opening drive of the game, Duke started on its own 21-yard line trailing by seven. Renfree came out throwing, completing four passes for 46 yards and three first downs mixed in with Thompson’s 19-yard run. That series got the Blue Devils down to the Stanford 14-yard line and it looked like Duke was going to trade blows with the Cardinal.

On first-and-10 we had our first sighting of Connette, who promptly ran up the middle for no gain. Renfree came back in, completed a short pass for five yards on second down, then threw incomplete on third down. After the missed field goal, the Blue Devils were left with a 70-yard drive and nothing to show for it.

After an incompletion in his second appearance, Connette next came in after a Stanford field goal, with the Blue Devils facing second-and-two at the Cardinal 35-yard line. Duke got to this point via two Renfree completions, two Thompson runs and a beautifully-executed fake punt. Connette was then inserted—and on his only play got planted in the turf for a loss of three. Renfree ended up saving the drive with a pass to Donovan Varner on fourth down, but the Blue Devils were forced to gain ten yards on that extra down after wasting a golden opportunity on second-and-two. Again, the drive ended in a missed field goal.

After Lee Butler’s 76-yard interception return for a touchdown and a successfully-recovered onside kick, Duke was energized entering the second half—despite the Cardinal’s touchdown at the end of the second quarter.

The Blue Devils started the half on their own 40-yard line, and Renfree went 5-of-7 for 39 yards and got 10 yards of assistance via Juwan Thompson on the ground. That left Duke with third-and-three on the Cardinal 11-yard line, certainly in scoring range. Yet again, Renfree was sent to the bench while Connette went in to run it up the middle, a play which was stuffed by the Stanford defensive line for a loss of three. The momentum was tangibly sucked out of Wallace Wade Stadium.

Renfree would come back in and throw incomplete to Donovan Varner on fourth down, again leaving the Blue Devils with a drive deep in Stanford territory and no points to show for it. The Cardinal scored on its next two drives and left behind an inflated final score that does not show how competitive Duke truly was with the sixth-ranked team in the nation. Perhaps if three critical downs had not been wasted, the Blue Devils could have been trailing by a mere three points midway through the third quarter.

Don’t get me wrong, Connette can be a valuable player, and has shown the ability to be effective at the goal line. But he has yet to be productive on spot duty in the open field.

Obviously it’s impossible to say that the outcome would have been any different had any of these three drives ended with a touchdown, but it’s clear that Renfree gives the team its best chance to move the ball. If Connette merits playing time, give him his own drive once a half and let him get into the rhythm of the game.

Duke just can’t afford to waste opportunities.


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