Duke bounced back from its devastating last-minute defeat against Notre Dame with a comfortable 24-3 home win against N.C. State. Next up, the Blue Devils face perhaps their toughest opponent of the season, as they travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on No. 4 Florida State. Here are five things to keep in mind ahead of Saturday night’s much-anticipated matchup.
Riley Leonard’s health
After suffering a high-ankle sprain during the dying seconds of Duke’s loss to the Fighting Irish, star quarterback Riley Leonard was forced to miss the game against the Wolfpack, with backup Henry Belin IV filling in under center. Belin’s first start yielded mixed results, as the New York native threw two touchdowns, but also completed only 33% of his passes.
In his press conference Monday, head coach Mike Elko claimed that Leonard is “day-to-day,” and questionable to play Saturday. Even if the junior does start against Florida State, it’s unclear whether Leonard will perform at the same level that had him projected as a potential first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. The Duke quarterback is a game changer largely as a result of his athleticism and superb running ability, two attributes which may be severely hampered by Leonard’s injured ankle.
While Belin was serviceable against the Wolfpack, outstanding quarterback play is absolutely necessary for the Blue Devils to have a chance of upsetting Florida State. Quite simply, Leonard’s presence under center, or the extent to which his injury affects his play, could be the determining factor in deciding whether Duke can compete against the Seminoles, or whether it will suffer its first blowout loss of the season.
Jordan Travis: Heisman candidate?
While Duke has faced several good quarterbacks this year, Florida State’s Jordan Travis may be the best so far. The sixth-year senior has been phenomenal through six games, scoring 17 total touchdowns and throwing just one interception. In fact, Travis is among the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy in December.
“[Travis] is playing at an elite level and really has been for the better part of two years now,” Elko said at his weekly press conference. “He knows exactly what he wants to do in that system. He's managing it really well. You can see him have complete command of the offense not only as a quarterback but also as a leader.”
Remarkably, Travis has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 17 consecutive games, an impressive stat which demonstrates the Seminole star’s consistency. Duke’s defense may be unable to end this streak Saturday, but finding a way to slow Travis down will be key in the Blue Devils’ quest for a victory.
High-powered offense vs. stifling defense
More than just a showdown between two potential future NFL quarterbacks, Saturday’s contest will also see one the most explosive offenses in the ACC face off against one of its best defenses. Florida State is scoring more than 42 points per game, and has reached the 30-point mark in every contest so far. Elko noted that the Seminoles possess a plethora of elite receiving threats.
“They've got skill players all over the place. The two really talented wide receivers in [Johnny] Wilson and [Keon] Coleman,” Elko said. “Tall, athletic, can run, can separate, can make explosive plays.”
Coleman has been particularly dominant this season, as the former Michigan State star has caught a remarkable seven touchdowns.
On the other hand, Duke’s defensive transformation under Elko has been a sight to behold. Led by a dominant defensive front and bolstered by a versatile secondary, the Blue Devils have allowed less than 10 points per game this season. Elko has not held back in praising his defense.
“You put up a points-per-game slide from two years ago to last year to this year, it would probably be one of the most impressive turnarounds you've probably ever seen and so that's a credit to all of those guys, and it's a credit to the kids,” Elko said.
On Saturday, fans will be treated to a clash between these two elite units, a battle which will probably decide the outcome of the game. If Duke’s defense performs well against the Seminoles, it may be time to start recognizing it as not just one of the best defenses in the conference, but in the entire country.
Unknowns on the road
The Blue Devils’ trip to Tallahassee will be just the second time they leave home this season. In fact, Duke has played just seven games away from Wallace Wade Stadium during Elko’s tenure, winning four of them and losing three. While the Blue Devils have excelled under an exuberant home crowd, they haven’t really been tested against a tough opponent in a hostile environment.
Moreover, the game Saturday will take place during Florida State’s homecoming, meaning the Seminoles will place a special emphasis on this matchup. Duke may have been a massive underdog during tough road games in the past, but the program’s remarkable turnaround means they likely will no longer be overlooked. It will be interesting to see how the Blue Devils handle the pressure of a ranked matchup without the support of the Wade Wackos.
Another slow start may prove costly
Despite its historic start to the season, the Blue Devil offense has struggled mightily during the first half of its biggest games. Duke scored just six first-half points against Clemson, and did not score until the third quarter against Notre Dame. Although the Blue Devils bounced back on both occasions, beating the Tigers and nearly besting the Fighting Irish, they probably won’t recover from another slow start against the Seminoles.
Florida State’s high-powered offense will be extremely hard to contain. So, if Duke allows the Seminoles to get out onto an early lead, it may be unable to catch up regardless of how well the Blue Devils perform later in the game. In order to beat Florida State, Duke must combine an electric start with a strong finish.
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