All year long, Patrick Payton and the defense say they play their best when their backs are against the wall.
They were true to their word on Saturday.
After allowing an open drive touchdown to start the day, Duke only put up six points the rest of the way. Florida State took plenty of body blows from the Blue Devil offensive line but held serve when they needed it most. Their second-half performance continues an absurd streak of three straight games without allowing a point in quarters three and four.
“We went into the locker room,” Braden Fiske said, “and made a commitment that we weren’t going to let any more points on the board.”
This game was not for the faint of heart, and the defense proved their championship-contending worthiness.
Here are two positives and two negatives from Adam Fuller’s unit Saturday night.
Positive No. 1: Second-half performance
Every week for the last four games, someone during post-game interviews asks the players about why they played so much better in the second half than the first.
The answer is the same each time, no matter the player, “we play our best when our backs are against the wall.”
Duke possessed the ball for five drives in the second half. They finished with a three and out, turnover on downs, three and out turnover on downs, end of game. Each of these drives proved monumental to win the game.
The Blue Devils received the ball to start the third quarter up by three with a chance to put the squeeze on the Seminoles. A penalty on the kickoff set them up with a fantastic field position at their own 40 yard-line. With a positive first couple of plays, Duke set up a manageable third and three. Even with no sacks on the day, the pass rush made their presence felt all night and forced an incompletion. Florida State also decided to go three and out and punted the ball back to the Blue Devils. This time, Duke marched the ball down the field and had 4th and 3 from the FSU 4-yard-line. In what seemed to be the turning point in the game, the pass rush again got home and forced newly inserted QB Henry Belin to throw wide of the mark for an incompletion. The following two Duke drives looked similar; the gashing runs that provided Mike Elko’s team success in the first half dried up, and the Seminoles hunkered down.
It seemed like the key to the Seminole's second-half success was their heavy rotation of players along the defensive line. Braden Fiske postgame mentioned that “getting fresh bodies in (the second half) made a huge difference.” The depth along the front certainly helped, but the defense looked to take a collective deep breath as the second half began. The first half was chaotic, to say the least. The defense sat for long periods because of the pick-six, and FSU getting the ball to start the game never allowed the defense to get in rhythm. With the Seminole crowd behind them, they put their stake in the ground and said no more, carrying FSU to victory.
Positive No. 2: Situational Defense
Going along with the theme of the day, when FSU needed a stop, they got it. Duke went for an underwhelming 4-14 on what FSU considers “cash downs” (3rd and 4th down). Fuller continued to mix up blitz packages, electing to rush four around half the time and bring the house on the other attempts. The two situational plays that stood out on Saturday were Shyheim Brown’s interception and the 4th down stop at the end of the third quarter.
After drawing the second of three holding calls against the Duke offensive line, the Seminoles backed up the Riley Leonard-led offense to third and 21. This time, Fuller elected to bring both linebackers on a blitz and play man coverage on the back end. With Leonard’s poor ankle and in the face of pressure, he could not throw the ball with zip and pace to his receiver. Brown read the route perfectly, undercut the receiver, and came down with the diving interception. The favorable field position led to FSU capitalizing for three, allowing the Seminole defense to make their first stamp on the game.
The play of the game for the defense was the fourth down stop inside their own 5. Duke had driven the ball down the field, eating six-plus minutes of game clock and threatening to go up two scores late in the third quarter. However, Henry Belin took over under center for an injured Leonard on this same drive and changed the game's complexion. Duke ran three straight runs with Belin in the game but, in the most significant moment, elected to drop back and pass. Florida State was not fooled.
Fuller trusted his front four and played zone on the back end. Patrick Payton beautifully swam over his blocker and forced an errant throw from Belin. The Seminoles would then drive the ball the length of the field for a touchdown, and even up by four, the game felt out of reach for Duke with a backup quarterback. The Seminoles grind situational work in practice daily. After the debacle against Boston College on third downs, Mike Norvell did not want to experience that same feeling.
The investment in the game plan paid off in a meaningful way Saturday night as the FSU kept the damage from swelling and met the moment.
Negative No. 1: Run Defense
Even with Leonard playing, the game plan for Duke was clear: they had to run the ball to win. Early on in the game, they executed to perfection.
Florida State lost contain on the first touchdown run of the day as Jaquez Moore turned loose for a 42-yard scamper to quiet down the raucous crowd. Duke continued to pound the rock; they finished the first half with five explosive run plays and finished the second quarter with an absurd 7-minute drive that only went for 58 yards.
The two issues the Seminoles needed help to solve were missed tackles and getting pushed around. As simple as both of these sound, the Seminoles did not execute in the first half. The defensive tackles, instead of standing up offensive linemen, were getting blown off the ball multiple times. The defensive linemen did not set a good edge outside, allowing the Duke running backs to bounce outside consistently.
When defenders did end up getting off blocks, they had trouble finishing plays. DJ Lundy and Shyheim Brown finished last week's game with 13 tackles combined. This week, the duo had five. The numbers told this story with Duke’s success on the ground. Duke offensive coordinator Kevin Johns called for 35 runs on the day, finishing with 197 yards, good for an average of over five yards a carry. As Fabien Lovett says, Florida State did not record a sack on the day as they did not earn the right to rush the passer. Both quarterbacks combined for only 22 pass attempts without much success. At multiple points in the game, the Blue Devils called for runs on three straight plays as they did not think FSU could stop it. Many of the poor rush habits the Seminoles faced early in the year flashed on Saturday night. Credit to Florida State for getting a push-up front when needed, but they were mauled in the trenches for stretches in this one.