DURHAM, N.C. – Jimbo Fisher has preached the same message to freshman running back Cam Akers over the last few weeks: Keep picking up easy yardage and the big plays will come.
On Saturday afternoon at Duke, the biggest play of Akers’ young career came at the biggest moment of Florida State’s season.
With the Florida State football team locked in a tight game with the Blue Devils midway through the fourth quarter, Akers took a third-down handoff to his right and broke through the Duke defense for a 42-yard touchdown that proved the difference in FSU’s 17-10 victory at Wallace Wade Stadium.
That run capped off another sterling effort for the FSU rushing attack, which, led by Akers (15 carries, 115 yards) and junior Jacques Patrick (18-98), racked up 228 yards and 5.7 yards per carry against a Duke defense that came into the game ranked seventh nationally with 88.0 rushing yards allowed per game.
“We’ve got to feed off of those guys,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “You’ve always got to be able to run the football and stop the run. … We’re finding an identity running the ball.”
Florida State’s defense enjoyed a few cathartic moments, too.
After the Seminoles took the lead, Duke had two chances with the ball in the game’s final four minutes.
Each time, Charles Kelly’s group held firm: The defense forced a three-and-out on Duke’s first chance, then held off the Blue Devils’ rally on the game’s final drive.
Duke made it to FSU’s 30-yard line with six seconds to play, but FSU safety Ermon Lane broke up quarterback Daniel Jones’ throw to the end zone to seal the victory.
“It’s a momentum-builder,” safety Derwin James said. “It was overall a good week of practice, a hard week coming off a tough loss. People didn’t dwell on it. People came to work and it paid off this week, getting the win.”
The Seminoles began the game in near-perfect fashion, taking their opening drive 83 yards in just 12 plays, capped off by a 20-yard touchdown strike from James Blackman to Auden Tate.
That play, however, might not have happened were it not for the work of Patrick, who, on an early third-and-1, broke free from a tackler behind the line of scrimmage and bounced outside for a 3-yard gain.
It was a grind-it-out type of day for Patrick, who averaged 5.4 yards per carry and converted three third-down attempts.
“That’s the ‘attitude down,’” Patrick said of his third-down runs. “Third down and short? I don’t care what the circumstance is, you’ve got to get that.”
That drive kicked off what turned out to be FSU’s best offensive day of the season (425 total yards). But despite finishing the game with healthy advantages in yardage (425-315) and time of possession (36:44-23:16), the Seminoles couldn’t gain much separation from Duke throughout the afternoon.
A field goal cut FSU’s lead to 7-3 midway through the second quarter, and the Blue Devils were driving for more when linebacker Emmett Rice picked off a halfback pass that went awry.
Duke’s Daniel Helm appeared to be open down the field, but running back Shaun Wilson’s pass was badly off target, A.J. Westbrook tipped it and Rice came down with the first interception of his career.
“That was huge,” Fisher said. “That was a big play because they had a guy coming open on it. But that’s the thing when you gamble. Our guys were back and got the tip and made a big play.”
Ricky Aguayo’s 11th-consecutive made field goal made it 10-3 late in the third quarter, but the Blue Devils used a 57-yard pass on third-and-17 to set up a tying touchdown on the ensuing drive.
The fourth quarter then belonged to Akers and Patrick. The two combined for 80 yards on 12 carries in the game’s final period, with Fisher calling Akers’ number on the third-and-2 play that turned out to be the game-winner.
Akers topped the 100-yard mark for the second time in as many games, and Patrick fell just two yards shy of giving the Seminoles’ a pair of 100-yard rushers for the first time in more than a year.
“That’s my little brother, man, that’s my brother for life,” Patrick said about Akers. “It’s a great thing to see. … Whoever’s name is called, we just go out there and execute.”
Added Fisher: “I can’t talk about one of them without the other. Those two feed off each other, they play off each other. They’re both playing exceptional football right now.”
Blackman, meanwhile, continued his hot streak from the end of last week’s Miami game by completing 18 of 21 passes for 197 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Blackman spread the ball around as well as he has in his career, too. Nine different Seminoles caught passes Saturday, led by Nyqwan Murray’s five receptions for 81 yards.
Freshman D.J. Matthews (one catch, 12 yards) and senior Jared Jackson (1-3) each caught the first passes of their careers while filling in for the injured Keith Gavin.
“He’s been doing real good,” Patrick said. “His poise has been big, he knows what to do and he’s just doing his job.”
Next up for the Seminoles is a chance at payback against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals.
FSU suffered a humbling defeat at Louisville last year, but the Cardinals (4-3, 1-3) are reeling a bit after back-to-back losses to North Carolina State and Boston College.
“They’re a high-powered team,” safety Derwin James said. “Even though their record is not what they want to be, they’re still a great team. Just like us.”