DURHAM, N.C. — Each game presents a fresh opportunity.
Which means it came as no surprise to anyone on the Florida State defense when they were called upon for a third straight week to preserve a victory for the Seminoles. After clinching a win at Wake Forest a few weeks ago, the Noles stumbled late against Miami last weekend. On Saturday afternoon against Duke, leading 17-10 with 1:32 left, Charles Kelly’s unit came through in the final moments on the road against the Blue Devils.
“We wanted to win the game, we knew it was going to come down to us,” said senior linebacker Matthew Thomas, who finished with five tackles and one for loss. “We’re growing every time we get a win.”
“When we knew it was going to come down to us,” senior defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi added. “We all told each other we needed to end the game right now and put it to bed.”
The drive against the Hurricanes left a bad taste in the mouths of the Seminole defenders, but when the moment arrived, no one panicked or felt a sense of déjà vu.
Defensive end Josh Sweat came up with a big sack on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones that took of time off the clock during the final drive, one of many important plays on the Blue Devils’ last opportunity.
Those seconds counted in the end – Duke ran out of time on a fourth-and-8 heave to the end zone that was broken up by Ermon Lane and Tarvarus McFadden.
“We didn’t press, you didn’t sense that on the sideline,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I think our guys wanted to prove themselves again, they wanted to step up and play on that final drive.”
With the ball at the FSU 32-yard line and less than a minute to play, defensive back Kyle Meyers tackled Duke’s Jonathan Lloyd after a short two-yard gain, keeping the receiver inbounds and the clock running.
The Blue Devils were out of timeouts and as angst grew on the home sideline, the Seminoles thwarted three straight plays as the clock ran out at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“We were calm,” junior safety Derwin James said. “We knew if we could just do our jobs and get to the ball we would be fine. “It was on us last week, but that game is over. So this week we had to get it done.”
Duke’s 10 points marked its second-lowest total of the season, as well as the fewest allowed by the Seminoles.
“We gave up some plays last week and this week we played more free mentally,” Sweat said. “We made some big-time plays and capitalized.”
It’s rare to see a true freshman in the spotlight of a Jimbo Fisher offense.
It’s even less common for an 18-year-old to take command of any team’s locker room. However, that’s exactly what James Blackman has done in his first few games as FSU’s starting quarterback. Against Duke, Blackman was outstanding for much of the game, completing 18 of 21 passes for 197 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
“He’s starting to feel more comfortable with a bunch of different things we want to do,” Fisher said. “There’s a lot of information in what we do.”
The Noles got off to a fast start thanks to Blackman, as he engineered a 12-play, 83-yard opening drive that ended with a 20-yard touchdown strike to Auden Tate. The freshman was 4-of-4 for 45 yards in the opening sequence, rushing for 14 yards on two carries to aid the effort
“He’s a competitor, a winner,” Fisher said. “When he has to make plays, he does. “For a young, true freshman quarterback to make those plays on the road, he’s got some grit to him.”
However, it’s Blackman’s guts late in games that has become an early trademark of the Belle Glade, Fla., native. With the game tied at 10-10 in the fourth quarter, Blackman led a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to give FSU its final margin of victory.
During the drive, Blackman converted on two critical third-down throws to keep the chains moving, while taking multiple big hits in the process.
“James is doing great, especially to be 18 and a true freshman,” James said.“I keep telling him that I tip my hat off to him, the way he makes checks and keeps taking those hits.”
“He has major respect (on the team), he’s a young guy, just 18,” said junior receiver Nyqwan Murray, who had his best day of the season with five catches for 81 yards. “He has all of my respect. If he needs anything, I got his back. The whole team has his back.”
As FSU continues to get the season back on track, the task of engineering the offense has fallen on Blackman’s shoulders. Through his first four starts, the true freshman has shown there is still plenty of room to grow. However, he’s already given glimpses of a tough, charismatic leader that has what it takes to step up when his team needs him most.
“His attitude is very good during the week and in the game,” Murray said. “He’s taking that next step in being a leader and the type of guy we need him to be as our quarterback.”