CHARLOTTE—With Duke riding high on an eight-game winning streak, the Blue Devils crashed back down to Earth hard against top-ranked Florida State in the ACC championship game.
With a solid first half performance from the defense, the Blue Devils failed to do what they had done all season—turn opportunities into points. The offense could not find an answer for the Seminole defense and blew early opportunities en route to a 45-7 loss.
"You are going to have to make plays when they present themselves," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "We're not going to beat a lot of people when we complete 50 percent of our passes. That's not always just the quarterback. In a game like this, any given opportunity to make a play, you'd better make it."
It did not seem like this would be the case, as Florida State drove deep into Duke territory on its second series of the game. But as running back Devonta Freeman weaved his way through the defense toward the end zone, redshirt senior corner Ross Cockrell knocked the ball out of his hands—Freeman’s first fumble all season—allowing Jeremy Cash to dive on the ball and swing the momentum back in the Blue Devils’ favor.
“That kind of shocked them I think,” Blue Devil defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “Because a lot of teams have been sitting back on their heels and just playing, but that was our game plan just to come after them from the jump, hit them in the mouth and that’s exactly what we were doing.”
Duke’s offense seemed to be running on all cylinders, as it drove down to the Seminole 33-yard line. On first-and-10, Boone found sophomore running back Jela Duncan wide open on the left sideline and lofted the ball his way, only for it to slip through his hands and go incomplete.
After a three-yard completion to receiver Johnell Barnes, Duke faced third-and-seven. Boone dropped back and tried to squeeze the ball into a tight window to Barnes, but the pass was a step behind him and Barnes could not hang on to the ball. This brought out kicker Ross Martin, who has been a huge part of Duke’s eight-game winning streak, with go-ahead field goals at Virginia Tech and North Carolina.
But Saturday’s contest would not feature a Duke lead, as Martin’s 48-yard attempt sailed wide right, squandering the chance to draw first blood and giving the Seminoles the ball.
“It’s one of those things where you've got to answer early, try to get some momentum,” Boone said. “Because a team like that, they have a great defense, they can put people away, and they have a quick offense that can score at will. So you've just got to get points where you can and try to catch a rhythm and we missed the points.”
The next letdown for the Blue Devils came after a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown put the Seminoles up 7-0 with 12:36 left in the second quarter. After Duke and Florida State posted consecutive three-and-outs, the Seminoles, who had negated receiver and punt returner Jamison Crowder thus far in the game, finally gave up a big play. On the punt return from Duke’s 23-yard line, Crowder cut left and turned upfield, taking the ball 40 yards to Florida State’s 37-yard line and giving the Blue Devils their best starting position of the day.
After picking up four yards in two plays, Boone dropped back on third-and-six and forced a ball into double coverage looking for a blanketed Crowder. Seminole cornerback Lamarcus Joyner picked off the pass at the 22-yard line to erase any chance Duke had of scoring.
The Seminoles would go on to score via a Karlos Williams nine-yard touchdown run and push the lead to 14-0.
“It’s frustrating,” Crowder said. “We knew going into the game that we were going against the best defense in the nation. So they came out and played well and did what they had to do, and we just didn't execute well on offense.”
Duke got the ball back via a Breon Borders interception—his first of two on the day—but could do nothing with it and ended up punting the ball away after contemplating going for it on fourth-and-3 from Florida State’s 43-yard line. The Seminoles would kick a field goal to go into halftime with a 17-0 lead and all the momentum.
The second half would just be a worse version of the second quarter for the Blue Devils. After the defense forced a Seminole punt, Duke’s offense had one more shot to put the Blue Devils back in the game. But Seminole linebacker Telvin Smith registered a sack and then picked off Boone on back-to-back plays to lead to another Winston touchdown pass—his second of three on the day—to put the game out of reach with a 24-0 lead.
Florida State would go on to win 45-7, with Duke's lone score—a 5-yard Josh Snead run—coming with 1:01 left in the game.
Though the Blue Devils were unable to answer Saturday, they are sure to have a short memory, as the team will need to get back to work on preparing for their Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup against Johnny Manziel and No. 20 Texas A&M.
"We've got a bowl game to prepare for," Cutcliffe said. "We'll find out where that is, and that's about it. It's one of those games you are going to look at the tape closely to evaluate a little more closely what we need to do better."