TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Before every Florida State home game, Osceola and his horse Renegade — the program’s mascots and an homage to the state’s indigenous Seminole tribe — ride onto the field and plant a flaming spear in the turf. On Saturday night, that spear might as well have been into Blue Devil hearts.
Under the floodlights at Doak Campbell Stadium, No. 16 Duke surrendered the early lead it built in the fourth quarter to fall 38-20 to No. 4 Florida State, handing the Blue Devils their first ACC loss of the year and 22nd in a row to the Seminoles.
"Obviously a disappointing result," head coach Mike Elko said after the game. "You know, we obviously came into this game with high expectations of how we would play and how we would perform, I think for three quarters we showed that, and then just in the fourth quarter we didn't have the responses that we needed."
Before the game started, Duke (5-2, 2-1 in the ACC) was given a major boost as junior quarterback Riley Leonard was named as the team’s starter, a mere three weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain during the Blue Devils’ loss to Notre Dame. The Fairhope, Ala., native looked shaky, though, failing to attempt a run until just under four minutes left in the second half and passing for an inefficient 7-for-16 rate and an interception.
Midway through the third period, Florida State (7-0, 5-0) defensive lineman Braden Fiske grabbed Leonard’s facemask and tore down, throwing him to the ground and putting all his weight on the aggravated ankle. The junior writhed to the floor before limping off the field, sending backup Henry Belin IV to marshall Duke’s budding drive toward the end zone. Belin just overshot a diving Jalon Calhoun on fourth down, keeping the Blue Devils with their narrow 20-17 halftime lead through the end of the quarter.
"He wanted to come back in and he was begging me on the sidelines to come back in," Elko said of Leonard. ""I just, I didn't feel comfortable with where he was health-wise to bring him back so we didn't do it."
Ultimately, Florida State’s red-zone stand proved costly for Duke, and star quarterback Jordan Travis powered into the end zone to take his team’s first lead of the night — 24-20 — and force the Blue Devils to play from behind. The energy from the bench was sapped and the nearly 80,000 fans in attendance started to take over, as did the Seminole offense.
"Riley's as tough as they come," senior left tackle Graham Barton said. "We got a lot of tough kids on this team. That's why we've been successful in the past couple of years, and I'd expect nothing less of him to go out there and give it a go. And I thought he had a great night and then obviously seeing him go down is unfortunate. But you've gotta instill some confidence in Henry [Belin]."
The iffy play under center by Duke, both from Belin and Leonard, was made up for by a dominant ground game, particularly from Jaquez Moore but also from graduate back Jordan Waters. In fact, the Blue Devils attempted 13 more running plays than passing ones, and Moore had already set a career high in rushing yards before halftime. That was mostly from a few hefty hauls, including his game-opening touchdown run and a beefy 24-yard gain down the gut near the close of the half.
The story leading up to the prime-time kickoff, including Leonard’s injury status, was about quarterbacks, and Travis — tabbed by many as a prime contender for the Heisman Trophy — showed why. After a rough first couple drives, the West Palm Beach, Fla., native picked up steam and started to torch Duke through the air for 268 yards by the end of the game. The first bit of offensive momentum came when Florida State orchestrated a methodical drive from its own 15-yard line that culminated in a powerful touchdown rush by Caziah Holmes to cut the score to 10-7 in the Blue Devils’ favor.
After Duke’s quick three-and-out to open the second quarter following the score, though, the Blue Devil defense crashed Travis in the pocket and forced him to throw into no-man's-land. The ball hit off his receiver’s hands and fell nicely to sophomore corner Chandler Rivers, who trotted casually into the end zone for a 13-yard pick-six.
But the mojo didn’t carry for long, and redshirt junior Seminole wideout Deuce Spann caught the ensuing kickoff on the one-yard line, evading tackle after tackle for a 99-yard return to the end zone. As quickly as it was extended, Duke’s 10-point lead was back down to three.
On his second drive of the night, Travis continued the magic by making a hefty something out of a near-nothing, escaping heavy pressure from R.J. Oben to find tight end Kyle Morlock for a 20-yard first-down reception. Upon further review, though, the redshirt junior stepped out of bounds before the catch, setting up fourth-and-1. The Seminoles went for it on their own 36-yard line but were stopped cold for the second time in the first quarter, bringing the Blue Devils back onto the field for a 45-yard field goal try. Pelino sent it straight down the alley.
There was something about 36-yard lines. Florida State got things started with a rolling drive down the field to Duke’s version, but Travis’ designed quarterback push was stopped at the line of scrimmage on a fourth-down stand that gave the Blue Devils the ball for the first time on the night. Waters ran it a couple times for a quick first, and a later completion to Calhoun set Duke up in Seminole territory.
Then, Moore turned on the jets and put a stamp on the Blue Devils’ opening drive with a marauding 42-yard house call down the left side of the field, getting nailed in the ankle just before the end zone but extending his arm just enough to tally the touchdown. Duke scored first — something that under Elko has meant a win every time except Saturday.
The Blue Devils will need to shake the heartbreak before a trip to Louisville — who carries just a single ACC loss — this coming Saturday.
"At the end of the day, we just have a lot of football left," redshirt senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. "It is week, whatever it is, seven? Six? So there's a lot a ball left."
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.