5 observations and more from No. 16 Duke football's first half against No. 4 Florida State

Riley Leonard hands the ball off to Jordan Waters during Duke's defeat to Notre Dame.
Riley Leonard hands the ball off to Jordan Waters during Duke's defeat to Notre Dame.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.— Sparks flew in the first half of No. 16 Duke’s matchup with No. 4 Florida State. In a back-and-forth affair at Doak Campbell Stadium that saw the Blue Devils give up a season-high 17 points in a half, they head into the locker room ahead 20-17:

Five observations:

He’s back: After missing just three weeks due to a high-ankle sprain sustained against then-No. 11 Notre Dame, junior quarterback Riley Leonard returned to the field Saturday against Florida State. He completed his first pass of the game to redshirt senior wideout Jalon Calhoun for 11 yards, but ended the half just 3-for-11 through the air with no touchdowns and an interception. In addition, Leonard did not attempt a rush until the team’s last drive of the second quarter, as the signal caller appeared to not yet have enough confidence in his ankle to scramble consistently. This significantly limited his effectiveness, as he has found the majority of his success as a dual-threat.

Early statement: A crowd of 79,560 that opened the game with a deafening roar was quieted quickly in the first quarter when Duke opened an immediate lead. The Blue Devils won the toss, and elected to defer possession until the second half and rely on their defense. The fourth-ranked scoring defense in the nation stood strong, stopping the Seminoles on a fourth-and-one on the Duke 36-yard line. The Blue Devils surrendered a few big gains on the ground, but continued to display their bend-don’t-break structure. 

Junior running back Jaquez Moore and the offense returned the favor, scoring just over two minutes later on a 42-yard run. Moore broke off to the outside, beat his defender, tore down the field and dove for the end zone, marking Duke’s 18th rushing touchdown of the season. He totaled 100 yards on the half, a career high.

Missed opportunities: After generating turnovers on downs on each of Florida State’s first two drives, the Blue Devils had multiple opportunities for a third takeaway. Seminole signal caller Jordan Travis dropped the ball in the backfield, but it squeaked out from senior Ryan Smith after he jumped on it. Then, only a few plays later, Travis sent an errant pass over the head of his targeted receiver, but Duke allowed the ball to fall incomplete. While these plays did not result in positive gains for Florida State, they allowed Travis to make a number of elite throws that led the Seminoles to their first score of the night. When the Blue Devils could have further seized momentum, they instead allowed the crowd to reenter the game.

Three and out: While Duke did start the game hot, its offense was rather lukewarm. After Moore’s score with 9:50 left in the first quarter, Leonard and the Blue Devils did not register another first down until just under 12 minutes were left in the second. Even on that drive, Duke tallied just two first downs. Two penalties killed the offense’s rhythm, including a holding call that negated a big third-and-long completion. That led to a third-and-longer, where Leonard underthrew Jontavis Robertson and gave up an interception.

House call: After nearly breaking away for a score on a kick return in the first quarter, Florida State wideout Keon Coleman found the endzone in the second. After a Duke pick-six, Coleman gave the Seminoles an immediate response and brought his team back within three. It is Coleman’s second-straight game with a special teams touchdown, as the junior returned a punt for a score last week against Syracuse.

By the numbers:

Fourth-down stops: After stopping Florida State on its first drive, Duke again held the Seminoles on fourth down, this time getting the ball back in plus territory. On both plays, the Blue Devils’ defensive line broke through to stop the Florida State ball carrier. The team’s two fourth-down stops in the first half add to its season total of eight, and opponents are now 6-for-18 — or 33.3% — on conversions. Both stops led to Duke scores, opening a 10-0  first-quarter lead. 

Total yards: While the Blue Devils led on the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter, the Seminoles tallied more than twice as many total yards — 147 to 71. A large reason for this is Duke’s quick couple drives — both of which resulted in scores — and starting field position, as the Blue Devils did not receive a kick until just 13 seconds were left in the first quarter. The trend continued until Duke’s final drive, when Elko turned to the ground to string together a 58-yard drive that nearly led to a touchdown, but ultimately resulted in a 33-yard Todd Pelino field goal.

Perfect record gone: Since head coach Mike Elko arrived last season, Duke has not lost a game when scoring first. On the other hand, the Seminoles are a perfect 21-0 all time against the Blue Devils. After Moore put Duke on the board in the first quarter, he doomed at least one of these perfect records. If first-half trends continue, the last team standing will be the one that can break through the opponent’s stifling defense without giving the ball up.

A play that mattered:

After the offense could not get anything going on its first drive of the second quarter, sophomore cornerback Chandler Rivers took matters into his own hands, hauling in an interception and finding the end zone for a pick-six. The play came after a monster punt from Porter Wilson put the Seminoles on their own eight-yard line and linebacker Dorian Mausi registered a tackle for a loss on first down to back Florida State up to the two. Rivers’ defensive touchdown was Duke’s second of the season, with the first coming from captain DeWayne Carter against UConn.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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