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FSU football’s imperfect win over Duke keeps the Seminoles perfect

Saturday’s victory over the No. 16 Blue Devils is impressive because No. 4 FSU wins big without playing its best game.
 
Florida State football's Lawrance Toafili scored in the Seminoles' dominant second half against Duke. Toafili went to Pinellas Park High before signing with FSU.
Florida State football's Lawrance Toafili scored in the Seminoles' dominant second half against Duke. Toafili went to Pinellas Park High before signing with FSU. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
Published Oct. 22, 2023|Updated Oct. 22, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — If No. 4 Florida State wasn’t viewed as a College Football Playoff national championship contender before Saturday’s 38-20 triumph over Duke, the Seminoles should be now.

It’s not just because of the final score (which wasn’t indicative of how close the game was). It’s not just because of the Blue Devils’ No. 16 ranking, either.

The buzz is deserved because of everything that happened in front of another sellout crowd at Doak Campbell Stadium, starting with this contradictory fact: This was FSU’s most impressive performance because it wasn’t the Seminoles’ best game.

“What a night,” coach Mike Norvell said. “What a night.”

Florida State football coach Mike Norvell celebrated the No. 4 Seminoles' win over No. 16 Duke.
Florida State football coach Mike Norvell celebrated the No. 4 Seminoles' win over No. 16 Duke. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

For three quarters, it was a night that looked like it would end very differently. FSU (7-0, 5-0 ACC) had itself to blame. Consider all the self-inflicted issues:

• FSU failed on fourth and short on its first two possessions. One gave Duke the ball at the FSU 35 to lead to a field goal.

• The Seminoles started one drive with a delay-of-game penalty and another with an illegal formation.

• Quarterback Jordan Travis forced a throw into double coverage on third and long. Duke turned the deflected pass into an interception and a touchdown.

• Travis took a sack on third down in the closing seconds of the first half. That robbed FSU of a chance to attempt a Hail Mary with one more play.

• FSU was offsides on its kickoff to start the second half, then had to burn a timeout on defense because of an apparent miscommunication before a Duke fourth down.

Hykeem Williams helped No. 4 FSU past No. 16 Duke on Saturday.
Hykeem Williams helped No. 4 FSU past No. 16 Duke on Saturday. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Those miscues could have been fatal against many teams. But they weren’t.

The fact that FSU was able to overcome them against this opponent says even more about the Seminoles’ potential.

The Blue Devils don’t have the athletes or name recognition of LSU or Clemson, but make no mistake: Duke is good. Don’t be surprised if there’s a rematch between these teams in Charlotte, N.C. for the Dec. 2 ACC championship.

Duke gashed FSU for 7.2 yards per carry in the first half. Its stout defense bottled up the Seminoles’ ground game and contained standout receivers Johnny Wilson and Keon Coleman.

Duke's ground game dominated FSU early.
Duke's ground game dominated FSU early. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]
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And FSU still found a way to rally from a 17-7 deficit to win.

The Seminoles did so with all three phases. One of the turning points came immediately after Duke’s pick-six when Lakewood High alumnus Deuce Spann fielded a kickoff. He returned it 99 untouched yards for the first touchdown of his Seminoles career and FSU’s first kickoff return for a score since Trey Benson’s against Boston College last year.

“That was the momentum that we needed,” Norvell said.

But they needed a lot more in the second half, when the Seminoles delivered a dominant performance (which is starting to become a theme for this team). Duke averaged 4.8 yards per play in the first half but only 3.6 in the second. The Blue Devils drove to the FSU 11 midway through the third quarter with a chance to pad its 20-17 lead.

FSU’s defense stuffed three runs and forced an incompletion. That set up a season-saving drive by Travis and the offense.

Florida State star Jordan Travis took over in the second half.
Florida State star Jordan Travis took over in the second half. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

It didn’t matter that Wilson left with an injury (after missing last week’s game due to injury, too). Travis led FSU down the field in 14 plays. He completed 6 of his 7 passes on the drive. He had only rushed once intentionally before the series, on one of the failed fourth-down attempts. He ran four times for 40 yards on that series, including the final two into the end zone to give FSU its first lead.

Travis kept going, rushing four more times for 28 more yards on the next series, then hit Pinellas Park High alumnus Lawrance Toafili for a 21-yard touchdown to pad the lead.

Travis’ 330 total yards moved him past Chris Weinke for the most career yards in program history (9,548).

“He’s got a champion’s heart,” Norvell said of his star quarterback.

So does Norvell’s program.

How else can you explain a second half where the defense forced two punts and two turnovers on downs and the offense scored on its final three drives? How else can you explain a team that followed perhaps its sloppiest first half of the season with arguably its best fourth quarter? How else can you explain how a team that lost at home to Jacksonville State 25 months ago beat a nationally ranked team by three scores without playing its best game?

If the season-opening destruction of LSU established FSU as a national title contender, then Saturday’s triumph solidified things with an imperfect performance in what is, still, a perfect season.

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