As the game wore on, the Seminoles' athletes began to break through the Blue Devils defense and show why Florida State is the No. 1 team in the country, a participant in the BCS national championship game and the home of the presumptive Heisman trophy winner.
But for four quarters Saturday at Bank of America Stadium, it was Duke that played a more physical football game.
"You can throw it and be skilled, but you got to be physical and you got to be nasty," Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. "You got to play the game clean, but this is a man's game and you have to be that way and we like to practice that way and we like to play that way and Duke did, too. My hat's off. They had some great hits, clean hits."
The Blue Devils were matched up against a Seminole team that was bigger, faster and—given the game's 45-7 final score—more talented on both sides of the football. But it was the Duke defense that set the tone early with its aggressive play. The Blue Devil pass rush was able to put pressure on Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jameis Winston early, forcing the redshirt freshman into some hurried throws thanks to Duke's confusing blitz schemes.
"We were one of the first teams to just come after them, just fully come out blitzing on them almost every down," Duke redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. "That kind of shocked them I think, because a lot of teams have been just sitting back on their heels and just playing, but that was our gameplan—just to come after them from the jump, hit them in the mouth and that's exactly what we were doing."
In the game's opening minutes, true freshman Deondre Singleton and redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards laid big hits on Florida State wide receivers Rashad Greene—a first-team All-ACC selection—and 6-foot-5 target Kelvin Benjamin, who scored two touchdowns against the Blue Devils.
As Duke's young defensive stars played without fear, the Blue Devils held the Seminoles scoreless in the first quarter for the first time all season. Ironically, it was the Florida State defense that led to Duke's unraveling on the defensive side of the ball.
After allowing the Blue Devils to march into field goal range on a long first-quarter drive, the Seminoles clamped down defensively and forced Duke into five consecutive three-and-outs in the second period. Forcing the Blue Devil defense to stay on the field for 10:28 in the second quarter, Florida State was able to wear Duke down and seize control of the game.
"It was the way we wanted it to start," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "I thought our gameplan was really, really good, and it just—the wear and tear of the game ended up getting the best of us."
The game became more lopsided in the second half, and although the Blue Devils continued to get their shots in, Florida State's athletes took their toll on the Duke offense. Offensive tackle Perry Simmons was carted off to the locker room in the third quarter with a knee injury. The redshirt senior made the 50th start of his career in the ACC championship game and had started every game during his four-year career, but will miss the final game of his collegiate career after suffering a torn ACL and MCL. Sophomore running back Shaquille Powell and redshirt junior quarterback Brandon Connette left the game with injuries as well.
The Blue Devils continued their physical play on defense throughout the fourth quarter, even when trailing 45-0—but this aggression may come back to bite Duke in its upcoming bowl matchup with Texas A&M . Sophomore safety Dwayne Norman was called for a targeting penalty in the fourth quarter of the contest, which got him tossed from the game and will prevent him from playing the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl .
After the game, Cutcliffe said that although the call was a hotly-contested one, there is nothing that will change the outcome of the ruling. Although the Duke head coach did not leave the Queen City with an ACC title in hand, he departed knowing that his team competed in a physical contest with the nation's best.
"One of things that we always want to do is finish," redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "We didn't give up the fight the whole game. We continued to force turnovers, we continued to play hard and we'll prepare ourselves for the bowl game."