By AL FEATHERSTON
Duke was on the verge of one of its best modern football seasons when starting quarterback Billy Ray was sidelined with an injury. The Blue Devils had to turn to their redshirt freshman backup for a key game at Wake Forest.
Brown had gotten a bit of experience as Ray's backup, but on his first play as a starter, he hit senior Clarkston Hines across the middle, and the All-American wide receiver turned the catch into a 97-yard touchdown play. Brown threw for four touchdowns that afternoon and stayed in the lineup to lead the '89 Blue Devils to three straight wins to close the season and earn a share of the ACC championship.
Unlike Brown, Boone did not throw a touchdown pass on his first play as Duke's starting quarterback. No, it took until his third play before the 6-foot, 235-pounder hit Jamison Crowder for a 54-yard touchdown strike. He ended up matching Brown's spectacular debut with four touchdown passes in Duke's 42-17 victory over the Cavaliers.
"I just want to credit my linemen and receivers," Boone said after the game. "They got open and the line protected me. The rest of it is what I've been coached to do. Any backup quarterback in the country is going to practice like he's a starter. I just practiced hard, not knowing if I was starting, read my keys and played fast in practice. I was trying to get timing with my receivers. It helped out in the game."
Boone -- like Brown -- was not without experience. He became Duke's top backup quarterback last season when Brandon Connette was hurt early. Boone inherited Connette's role as a short-yardage and red zone specialist, running more than he passed.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Boone's performance against Virginia illustrated the benefits of his unorthodox quarterback rotation.
"Boone didn't play like a backup," he said. "That's why for years we've played backup quarterbacks situationally. It's something we learned a long time ago and it's paid dividends.
"Somebody once said I 'vultured' the quarterback. I think you can understand now that it's not vulturing when you take a quarterback out in the red zone or in short yardage. It's using your squad."
Cutcliffe's preparation of Boone paid off a week ago at Wake Forest. When Renfree was knocked out of the game with an elbow injury, Boone was forced to take over the offense with the score tied 20-20.
He promptly ran for the go-ahead touchdown, then -- after the defense forced a turnover -- engineered what proved to be the clinching touchdown drive.
Yet, Boone said even that positive experience didn't prepare him for his first starting job.
"It's kind of a different mentality going into the game fresh," he said. "It's kind of like you are setting the tempo instead of coming into the game with the tempo already set. It was definitely a different thing. I'm glad I ended up doing a good job."
It didn't help that Boone had to wait all week to find out for sure that he was starting. Renfree didn't practice during the week, but he was there taking what Cutcliffe called "mental reps" as the training staff tried to heal his sore right elbow.
"Our training room did an incredible job and got him to the point where he could throw a little bit Friday morning," Cutcliffe said. "He felt good. You could tell he wasn't what you normally see. I thought he was better today. But the last thing I wanted to do was be responsible for a quarterback having an elbow issue. You don't know if when you get in a game and he's trying to throw it harder and getting hit, if you're going to create a long-term issue."
After watching Renfree throw Friday morning, Cutcliffe told his staff that he was leaning towards starting Boone. But he wanted to sleep on it before making the final decision Saturday morning.
"I thought Sean could help us win, but I wasn't convinced it was the right thing to do.," Cutcliffe said. "I thought Anthony had a great week of practice. It just made sense ... it was my gut feeling."
Boone didn't find out for sure that he was starting until just before kickoff.
"They kind of made me aware of it [Friday]," he said. "They said, 'We're probably going to start you.' Today, out on the field, Coach Cut said, 'Hey, you're starting. Get ready to go.'"
Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper helped Boone get off to a fast start with a scripted sequence of plays that took advantage of his rushing skill. On the first play of the game, Boone took a shotgun snap and raced right, slicing through the Virginia defense for a 12-yard gain. After handing off to Juwan Thompson for seven yards, Boone started out as if he were repeating his successful opening play. He took the direct snap, raced right ... but he pulled up and lofted a pass to a wide open Jamison Crowder, who was uncovered when his defender bit hard on the run fake.
"It was a pretty simple read," Boone said. "The first play was to get me running ... I got a big gain. The touchdown play was just a simple read -- if one person is open, throw it. If not, then throw it away."
The wide-open Crowder caught the ball in stride and, with the help of a great downfield block by Desmond Scott, converted it into a 54-yard touchdown play.
"That was a big momentum boost for me," Boone said.
The young quarterback was also helped by his star wide receiver. Just as Hines helped Brown out in 1989, senior Conner Vernon -- who recently passed Hines as the most prolific receiver in Duke history and on Saturday set ACC mark for most career receptions, on a pass from Boone no less -- helped Boone out with two terrific touchdown catches -- the first a 37-yard flag route in which he out-jumped the defender for the ball; the second a 45-yard post play in which Boone laid it in perfectly to Vernon, who had half a step on two defenders.
"Conner, you throw the ball anywhere near him, he's going to come down with it," Boone said.
Duke's "backup" quarterback finished by hitting 18 of 31 passes for 212 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He was happy with his play after a few nervous moments early.
"I just had to settle down, know my keys and run the offense," he said. "It's a pretty simple game plan. The offensive line did a great job. The running backs ran hard, punishing people and the receivers were getting open. I tried to stick to the game plan and settle down."
Boone was also helped when the Blue Devils finally got their ground game going in the second half. Boone himself played a part in that with 41 yards on seven carries, but tailbacks Juwan Thompson (71 yards on seven carries), Jela Duncan (41 yards on 10 carries) and Josh Snead (37 yards on seven carries) all played a significant role as Duke rushed for its highest total (182 net yards) in the last two seasons.
It took a while for the running game to click -- 130 of those 182 yards came in the second half.
"We run like an Oregon zone read," Boone said. "You just keep pounding it ... pounding it ... pounding it. Sooner or later, when somebody gets tired and they don't break the right way or make the right read, we're going to break it for a touchdown."
Boone's strong performance off the bench is typical for this Duke team, which has battled an incredible series of injuries this season.
"That's been the theme of the season," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "People have been stepping up and making plays. There's no drop off between the ones and the twos. Our backups just step in and play.
"Boone did that today ... he played a heck of a game."
Boone's strong play gives Cutcliffe a lot of options going forward. The Duke coach made it clear that Renfree is still Duke's starting quarterback -- as soon as he's physically able to return -- but he added that he would continue to use Boone situationally.
"Sean Renfree is our captain," Cutcliffe said. "He's a starter. He's a great team player. He's a great football player. We're going to do what we have to do to win. There is no controversy.
"If Sean is ready to go this week, we'll more than likely start with Sean. I've got to see where he is. I think we have an opportunity to play a couple of people. We can be different and cause problems. I'm going to look at that too."
In the long term, Boone's successful debut is very significant for a budding program. Duke has just 13 scholarship seniors this year -- one of the smallest groups in the nation. Next season, the Blue Devils will have to replace a handful of stars, but the bulk of the team returns. The big question mark appeared to be replacing Renfree, the three-year starter at quarterback.
Now, Boone has provided evidence that Duke will continue to have options at quarterback, even after Renfree is gone.
But more than that, Boone's starting debut against Virginia kept this season's hopes alive. No need to dream about next year when this season still looks so bright.-d-u-k-e-