No. 16 Duke football kept it tight with Florida State for 3 quarters. But at the elite level, margins are razor-thin

Riley Leonard is taken down during Duke's loss to Notre Dame.
Riley Leonard is taken down during Duke's loss to Notre Dame.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Just minutes before kickoff against No. 4 Florida State, it was announced that junior quarterback Riley Leonard would suit up as the starter for the 16th-ranked Blue Devils, bringing a true belief to both the team and its fans for an upset. And, through the first 40 minutes of the game, it seemed like Duke might just do it, as the Blue Devils held onto a 20-17 lead and threatened to score again. 

Then, Leonard was pulled down by his facemask and re-tweaked his ankle. Suddenly, Duke went from a confident underdog to a team worrying about the health of one of its most important pieces. The Seminoles pounced on the Blue Devils’ newfound uneasiness, and tore small holes wide open into a 38-20 victory.

In its newfound success as a top-25 team, Duke has shown the talent and ability to play at an elite level. However, the margin of error against other elite teams is miniscule, and Florida State exposed how quickly a game can change. While the Blue Devils still have all of their goals — namely, reaching the ACC title game in Charlotte — within reach, they will need to find a way to tighten their spirits when they come under duress.

“We came into this game with high expectations of how we play and how we would perform. Through three quarters we showed that, and then in the fourth quarter, we didn't have the responses that we needed,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “We didn't convert the fourth-and-3, we gave up the 96-yard drive, which I really think caused a lot of fatigue [and] we didn't put a drive together on offense to respond. Then we went back out on defense, and we didn't respond.”

Leonard’s reaggravated injury alone did not spell Duke’s demise. After all, the Blue Devils still led after their failed fourth-down conversion on the doorstep — which would’ve reestablished a double-digit advantage — and the Seminoles were set up all the way back at their own four-yard line. But, redshirt senior quarterback Jordan Travis proved why he is a candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and he engineered an impressive touchdown drive. 

Three times, Duke’s defense forced third down, but Travis created time and space for his receivers to find first downs on each play. When Travis’ two-yard touchdown run gave Florida State its first lead of the game, the deficit suddenly felt insurmountable for the Blue Devils.

“When you allow a team to go on a [96-yard] drive, that's a lot of snaps on your defense. We can't allow that to happen,” Elko said. “And, if you want to recover from a drive like that, offensively you have to be able to go out and answer and put a drive together, and we didn't do that either. Then, all of a sudden [you] go back out on the field with a really tired group. That's not a recipe for success.”

Duke had done its job of limiting Travis’ explosiveness and forcing the Seminoles to play its game, but a few small mistakes were enough to turn the tables and put the Blue Devils on their heels. As soon as Travis sensed vulnerability, he pounced, leading the team to two more scores to blow open the game.

While Saturday’s loss was certainly painful for the team, Duke also exhibited signs of a unit capable of playing at a top-10 level, namely in the first half. On the first two drives of the game, the Blue Devils stopped Travis and the Florida State offense on fourth-and-short. That was the same offense that torched them for 136 yards in the fourth quarter. This time around, though, it was Duke that took advantage of the small miscues the Seminoles made, scoring a field goal off one of the fourth-down stops and registering a pick-six on an errant pass.

Likewise, the Blue Devils showed that they could impose their will on the offensive end. While Leonard was not his usual self, it did not seem to matter, as Duke simply ran over Florida State for 144 yards on the ground at 7.2 yards per carry. In particular, junior running back Jaquez Moore had a career-day, totaling 100 yards and a touchdown in the first half.

“The plan was to force them to get physical, force them to stop the run, and then when we did throw the ball, have it not be in third-and-long type situations,” Elko said. “And I thought, for the most part — for three quarters — we accomplished that.”

Taking both halves together, the Blue Devils learned a valuable lesson Saturday: To play with and beat a playoff-level opponent, they cannot falter for even a moment. Leonard’s injury was the block that took down the tower, and Duke failed to regain its composure before Florida State seized the game.

Moving forward, the Blue Devils hopes’ continue to rely on the health of their quarterback, which remains in question, but the rest of the team must find a way to right itself. With road games against Louisville and North Carolina slated in the next three weeks, the margin for error remains razor thin.

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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