Scouting the opponent: Florida State brings talent to Durham despite 1-3 record

<p>Jimbo Fisher coached Florida State to a win in the 2013 ACC championship game last time he faced the Blue Devils.</p>

Jimbo Fisher coached Florida State to a win in the 2013 ACC championship game last time he faced the Blue Devils.

Not too often is a 4-2 team heavy underdogs to a 1-3 team at home—the situation Duke finds itself in against Florida State. 

But the Seminoles are no typical 1-3 team. 

After falling in its season opener to No. 1 Alabama and canceling its Week 2 game due to Hurricane Irma, preseason No. 3 Florida State is a few plays away from being 3-1 despite losing its Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback in Deondre Francois. 

The Seminoles came within six points of N.C. State in true freshman James Blackman’s career debut and gave up a touchdown with six seconds left to lose to Miami, which trounced the Blue Devils 31-6. Now, Duke faces the tall task of toppling a talented Seminoles team Saturday afternoon at Wallace Wade Stadium. 

“Alabama struggled offensively against them. And I don’t know anybody that has composite talent like they do down there [at Alabama], although I know Coach [Nick] Saban is so tired of being told how good they are,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Florida State challenged ‘Bama physically. I learned from [the 2013 ACC championship] not to underestimate how good they are.”

The Seminoles return nine starters on defense from a squad that was No. 12 in the nation in defensive efficiency and beat then-No. 6 Michigan in the Orange Bowl a season ago, and that unit hasn’t missed a beat. 

Despite playing the Crimson Tide and an explosive Miami offense, Florida State ranks 15th in the nation in defensive efficiency, led by a stingy front seven. Defensive linemen Derrick Nnandi, Hosh Sweat, Demarcus Christmas and Brian Burns have all been lethal, combining for 15 tackles for loss on the season. 

The Seminoles limited preseason Heisman contender Bo Scarbrough to just 40 yards on 15 attempts and elite Miami running back Mark Walton to just 25 yards. 

“Florida State is talented,” Cutcliffe said. “They can play a lot of people on defense and they can run. They can consume a field. I don’t know that we’ll play another defense as talented as this one.”

And Duke couldn’t have run into this defense at a worse time. Behind Daniel Jones’ 14-of-42 outing against Virginia—his third straight week completing fewer than 53 percent of his passes—the Blue Devils’ passing offense accounted for just 124 yards. Duke has scored two offensive touchdowns in its last eight quarters, and only one when Jones was on the field. 

The redshirt sophomore has regressed significantly after a late surge during his freshman year that left some wondering whether he would declare for the NFL Draft after this season. 

It hasn’t all been on Jones’ shoulders, however—the pass blocking was weak against North Carolina and Miami, combining to allow eight sacks, and the receivers haven’t created enough separation.

“A lot of [the struggles] are in the execution of the passing game,” Jones said. “We were better in protection and picking up pressures against Virginia. That’s a team-wide thing, so that was encouraging, although we still have a ways to go. We’re getting on the same page on routes with the receivers better.” 

The running game that will match up with the Seminoles vaunted defense has been doing its job this season. The two-headed backfield monster of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson has averaged 5.9 yards per carry this season in support of Jones, and Duke’s stingy run defense is No. 7 in the nation in yards allowed. 

Duke’s defense will face a relatively less daunting task than its offense will—Florida State ranks 119th in the nation in scoring. However, Blackman, who has filled in for Francois ever since he suffered a season-ending patella tendon injury against the Crimson Tide, has steadily improved. 

After passable performances against N.C. State and Wake Forest, Blackman stepped it up against Miami, completing 60.7 percent of his passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns. 

No one will confuse Blackman for former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, but his steady hand has been enough to guide the Seminole offense, and lead backs Jacques Patrick and Cam Akers have been effective, combining to rush for 5.3 yards per carry. If Blackman continues to manage games and can avoid the turnovers that plagued him against Miami, he can help lead a steadily improving Seminole offense. 

“We’ve gotten better,” Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said. “The offensive line has gotten better. James [Blackman] has gotten better....We should be making that one other play in those games.”

Hank Tucker and Mitchell Gladstone contributed reporting.

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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