TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Duke’s road trip to Tallahassee started as the longest of shots—an away game against one of the nation’s best teams. It ended as the most complete defeat the Blue Devils have suffered this season. But the lopsided nature of the loss is exactly what will allow the Blue Devils to move past Saturday sooner rather than later.
Dominated by Florida State in all phases and nearly every statistical category, Saturday’s game never felt close. Big plays helped the Seminoles open up a large early lead, and then sheer athleticism allowed them to coast to a 48-7 victory. Rather than being beat by its own mistakes, Duke was simply beat by a better team.
“There is a reason Florida State was predicted to win a national championship,” junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We saw that today. That’s about it.”
Florida State put up points with ease in the first half, needing just 24 offensive plays to score the first 31 points of the game. Aside from the punt sophomore Tyler Hunter returned 75 yards for the team’s second touchdown, each Seminole score was set up by a separate deep completion by senior quarterback EJ Manuel. Stretching the field early and often, Manuel finished the first half with 182 yards on just four completions.
Unlike in the past, the big pass plays allowed by the Blue Devil defense were not the products of blown coverages. On the release of nearly every pass—including the completions—a Duke defender was no more than a step from the intended receiver.
“[There was] nothing that surprised us,” Cockrell said. “They were just the fastest receivers we have seen all year, and it took us a little time to get adjusted to that.”
That speed advantage, combined with Manuel, a 6-foot-5 quarterback with great downfield vision and the ability to throw the ball more than half the field, spelled disaster for the Blue Devil secondary.
“We had people there. It wasn’t a matter of busts [in coverage],” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We didn’t have any blown coverages—we just had guys chasing them.”
Equipped with a healthy lead, the Seminoles were then able to grind the game away on the ground in the second half. Behind an overpowering offensive line that routinely won the battle in the trenches, Florida State’s backs averaged nearly six yards a carry for the day and racked up 263 yards on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, Duke never developed any offensive rhythm as the Seminole defense repeatedly forced third-and-long attempts. The Blue Devils finished the day converting on just 4-of-18 third downs.
“One of our goals was first down production to keep the third down circumstances from being so long…. Against good teams you’re not going to convert many third-and-longs,” Cutcliffe said. “We needed first down production… and just the opposite occurred.”
It took Duke 38 plays to put points on the board, scoring a touchdown at the end of a 14-play drive in the second quarter. But two scary injuries to running back Juwan Thompson and quarterback Sean Renfree, both the products of helmet-to-helmet collisions, mitigated any momentum that could have been generated during what ended up being the team’s only scoring drive on the day.
After averaging 416 yards per game through their first eight games, the Blue Devils finished Saturday with just 232 yards of total offense. Duke’s prolific trio of receivers—Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and Desmond Scott—finished with a combined 44 yards on seven catches.
“[They are] by far one of the best defenses we have faced all year,” Scott said. “They are everything you want from a defense.”
Even Duke’s special teams, which have turned in exceptional performances all season, fell well short against Florida State. Coming into the game averaging almost 46 yards per punt, freshman Will Monday averaged just 40.5 yards on 12 punts Saturday, and his missed tackle was Duke’s best opportunity to stop Hunter’s punt return for a touchdown. Similarly, true freshman Ross Martin missed a 24-yard chip shot in the third quarter, snapping his streak of 13 consecutive made field goals. Meanwhile, Florida State’s kicker, senior Dustin Hopkins, routinely pinned the Blue Devils inside their own 20-yard-line on kickoffs and, in the fourth quarter, hit a career-long 56-yard field goal to set the all-time ACC record for made field goals.
“Our two young freshmen picked the bad day to have their day that wasn’t as good as they normally are,” Cutcliffe said of Monday and Martin. “And they are good football players—they’re still good football players. I’m not worried about them. Guess what? They’re going to have those days like that.”
On Saturday, coming off the biggest victory for the football program in years, it seemed like everyone had a day like that. It wasn’t mental lapses or turnovers that doomed the Blue Devils—they actually recovered four Seminole fumbles without having any turnovers of their own. They were simply outmatched.
“I told our team afterwards that it was not a product of their preparation,” Cutcliffe said. “I told our seniors, ‘You’re going to have to leave all this in Tallahassee. We have too much lying in front of us.’... It’s a part of the process to understand what a really good team looks like.”
After the game, Cutcliffe’s players, in better spirits and noticeably more confident than they had been following the team’s two other losses this season, already seemed to be well on their way to putting the Florida State game in the past.
“[The Seminoles are a] great team. [They are] big and fast—everything you look for in any type of team,” Scott said. “We are going to go back to Durham, watch the film and move on. We are going to show the young players how you bounce back from a loss like that.”