After a perfect 4-0 start to the season, some believed the Blue Devils were ready to take the next step.
But after three straight losses, Duke and its sputtering offense have fallen out of relevancy in the ACC.
In their last three games, the Blue Devils have scored just three offensive touchdowns, and the offense struggled once again in a 17-10 loss to Florida State Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. Led by a balanced approach with an 18-of-21 performance from quarterback James Blackman and 115 rushing yards from Cam Akers, Florida State outgained Duke by more than 100 yards en route to a late victory.
Duke had two late drives with a chance to score a game-tying touchdown and crossed midfield with no timeouts in the final minute.
Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones made several impressive passes to get his team 30 yards from the end zone, but valuable time ticked away when Johnathan Lloyd was tackled in bounds with 30 seconds left, and a desperation Hail Mary was knocked down in the end zone as time expired.
“It’s got to be my job and those other guys like [Jones] to rally the team and make sure there are no heads hanging or slumps or anything like that,” defensive tackle Mike Ramsay said. “It’s easy when you start 4-0 and lose three in a row for people to start hanging their heads, especially young guys. It’s our job to keep the morale high in the locker room.”
Jones was more efficient than he was in his 14-of-42 outing last week against Virginia, completing 22-of-34 passing attempts for 204 yards. The Seminoles dominated the time of possession by more than 10 minutes, however, thanks to an effective ground game.
“We improved in the passing game and were able to execute, but were probably not consistent enough,” Jones said. “Obviously, we still have a lot to correct and work to do this week.”
The Blue Devils (4-3, 1-3 in the ACC) also struggled to make explosive plays in both phases of the offense, averaging just 5.5 yards per passing attempt with one play of more than 21 yards—a 57-yard pass to T.J. Rahming on a Jones scramble. Outside of Rahming, no Duke receiver had more than 20 yards receiving, and the Blue Devils had just one rush of more than 15 yards.
“I kept thinking we were going to break a big long run,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re not quite built that way yet, but we want to be built where we can have explosive plays running, on play action [and] drop back.”
Nevertheless, Duke tied the game at 10 late in the third quarter, but a 42-yard touchdown run by Akers midway through the fourth quarter, just the second score on the ground of the season for Florida State, put the Seminoles ahead of the Blue Devils for good.
Duke entered Saturday with the No. 7 rushing defense in the country, but struggled to slow the physical duo of Akers and 6-foot-3, 234-pound back Jacques Patrick, allowing 213 rushing yards between the two of them.
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“They’re big, physical backs,” Ramsay said. “We need to do a better job of tackling, regardless of how big the back is or who they are…. There are no ankle tackles with them. You have to be physical with them, rally to the ball, gang tackle and make sure that 11 hats get to the ball.”
Despite their struggles in stopping the run, the Blue Devils forced enough key turnovers to keep themselves in the game against the talented Seminoles (2-3, 2-2).
After being pushed around early and nearly staring down a 14-0 first-quarter deficit to the nation’s preseason No. 3 team, Duke looked sunk. Akers and Patrick left Duke defenders strewn all over the field on missed tackles, racking up 70 combined rushing yards on their first two drives.
The Blue Devils couldn’t make plays in space, including on a crucial third-and-1 at the Florida State 26-yard line on the opening drive, in which they seemed to have Patrick bottled behind the line of scrimmage. But the running back powered through several defenders for the first down.
After a 12-play, 83-yard touchdown drive, the Seminoles threatened once again just outside the red zone up 7-0 in the first quarter. Akers and Patrick helped power the Seminoles all the way to Duke’s 31-yard line, priming them for another golden scoring opportunity.
“We need to improve at the beginning of the half, the beginning of the game,” Ramsay said. “We’ve let offenses get rolling too early. We need to come out a little more firm, a little more ready to play, instead of letting them score and then we start playing.”
But deep in Duke territory, a Florida State receiver slipped on third down, allowing Mark Gilbert to pick off Blackman, who had completed his first seven passes.
From there, Duke took the momentum, driving 15 plays and 66 yards before settling for a field goal. With a 7-3 lead and threatening again, head coach David Cutcliffe tried some trickery—to no avail.
After Brittain Brown had taken three carries for 34 yards and Daniel Jones’ offense churned all the way to Florida State’s 36-yard line late in the second, Jones pitched it to Wilson, who lobbed it downfield to tight end Daniel Helm. Thrown into triple coverage, the pass was deflected up and picked off by linebacker Emmett Rice.
The Seminoles had another chance to score, but unlike against Virginia and North Carolina, Duke held strong in the waning minutes of the first half.
The Blue Devils responded to a field goal late in the third quarter with a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by a nine-yard run by Brown. On the next drive, they made another big play to gain possession in a tie game, with safety Jeremy McDuffie intercepting Blackman and returning it to near midfield.
But Duke quickly went three-and-out with Quentin Harris at quarterback in place of Jones on third down, punting it away only to see Florida State take the lead on the next drive.
“He’s a really good football player and deserves the ability to get out there and make plays,” Jones said of Harris.
The Blue Devils will get a golden opportunity to snap their three-game losing streak next week at home against Pittsburgh, a team that has yet to beat a Power Five opponent this season.
“We’re on the right track,” Cutcliffe said. “As crazy as this may sound, I’m excited about the opportunity that lies ahead of us. It has nothing to do with Pittsburgh. It has everything to do with Duke. What can we respond and do? I’m excited for the challenge.”