Now that Duke has secured its first bowl berth since 1994, Saturday marks another potential turning point in the season.
The Blue Devils have the chance to prove they can hang with the best of the best Saturday as they travel to Tallahasee to take on No. 11 Florida State. Beating archrival North Carolina established Duke football as a legitimate program on the rise. But Saturday’s game against Florida State will answer—can Duke compete with an elite opponent on the road?
“Most good competitors, if not all, want to measure themselves against the best,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “This is what you compete for.”
The most impressive statistic from Saturday’s win against the Tar Heels was on the ground, where the Blue Devils accumulated 234 yards, the most in the Cutcliffe era.
The Seminoles (7-1, 4-1 in ACC), however, come into this weekend sporting the second-best run defense in the country, yielding just 69.1 yards per game. With three seniors on the defensive line, including Cornellius Carradine who is second in the ACC among linemen with 48 tackles on the year, the running game that took off against North Carolina last week could come to a screeching halt.
For Duke quarterback Sean Renfree and the passing attack, Saturday’s biggest test will not be the ability for receivers to get open, but rather the ability to get the ball out. The Seminole defensive line’s 21 sacks on the year are second best in the ACC. If the Blue Devils are to win, they not only need to create holes for running backs Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Jela Duncan, but also protect Renfree.
“It’s a big challenge for a veteran offensive line that has had its moments of being great themselves,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m anxious to see how we respond.”
Defensively, the Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1) will look to continue where they left off after the third quarter of Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels. Although they were able to hold Bryn Renner to 36 yards passing through the first 45 minutes—in addition to containing Giovani Bernard—the fourth quarter saw a collapse that almost cost the team the game.
Things do not get any easier for Duke with Florida State’s offense. The Seminoles boast an incredibly balanced attack that utilizes both their strong ground game as well as their talented quarterback E.J. Manuel. Although Florida State lost its leading rusher for the season in Chris Thompson to a torn ACL, the Seminoles have two strong running backs in Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., who both average more than six yards per carry.
“I truly hate that for Chris Thompson because I think he is really one of the finer players in our league,” Cutcliffe said. “But Florida State, like all really good programs, is going to be deep. They have outstanding backs that have given us problems last year. We’ve seen them and we know how good they are.”
As for Manuel, the Blue Devils will need to ensure that they apply constant pressure on the quarterback. The senior from Virginia Beach, Va. has 14 touchdowns with just four interceptions and boasts the sixth best passer rating in the country. However, he has been sacked 13 times this season, meaning that it is more than possible for Duke to keep Manuel on his toes and possible force mistakes.
Ultimately if the Blue Devils are to win this game, they need to perform in a near-perfect way and put pressure on the Seminoles. And history is not on their side as Florida State has won all 17 games in the series by an average margin of 34 points.
Yet this has been the season for changing history. Duke has beaten Wake Forest for the first time since 1999. The Blue Devils defeated North Carolina for just the second time in 24 years. And they have made their first bowl game since 1994.
“We all know we have four games left, starting with one of the more talented teams in the country,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s a gut check. And we’re going to find out a lot about ourselves.”