TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Duke’s recipe for success during its four-game winning streak at the start of the season was fairly simple: Get just enough offense and then let the defense take it from there.
It worked to perfection in wins over North Carolina Central, Northwestern, Baylor and North Carolina. And despite back-to-back losses to Miami and Virginia, the Blue Devils still boast a defense that’s one of the nation’s best at forcing interceptions and preventing third-down conversions.
Duke’s 10 interceptions are the second-most in college football, and they’ve returned four of them for touchdowns.
Which means ball security could be an even bigger priority than usual when James Blackman and the Florida State Seminoles visit the Blue Devils on Saturday (noon, ESPN2).
“Outstanding on defense,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said about Duke during his weekly ACC teleconference. “Up front, (they) do a lot of stunting and twisting and (cause) problems. Linebackers are very active, take very few false steps. Do a great job in the secondary.”
When the Blue Devils aren’t forcing turnovers, they’re often forcing punts.
Duke this season has allowed opponents to convert only 23.8 percent of their third-down attempts, the third-best mark in the nation behind Michigan and Texas-San Antonio.
Third-down offense has been a point of emphasis for Florida State after converting 5 of 15 attempts last week against Miami. For the season, FSU is just under 30 percent on third down.
“We’ve got to execute better,” Fisher said after the Miami game. “We didn’t execute a couple times and they made a couple plays. They knocked the ball away and stopped us.”
That said, the Seminoles have built some momentum in that area.
Last week’s fourth quarter might have been FSU’s best offensive stretch of the season. The Seminoles scored a season-high 17 points, racked up 201 total yards and, perhaps most impressively, converted three of four third-down attempts.
They weren’t all easy pickups, either: Blackman threw for 15 and 21 yards on a pair of third-and-10s, and freshman Cam Akers pushed through the UM defensive line for a two-yard pickup on third-and-1 with less than two minutes to play.
“I can’t really tell you,” tight end Ryan Izzo said when asked what sparked the improvement. “Probably just settling in, maybe. Maybe James getting more comfortable as the game went through. But we’ve got to learn to play (well) in the first three quarters as well.”
While maybe not as renowned as headliners like Alabama, NC State or Miami, the Blue Devils should represent the fifth significant test for the FSU offense in as many games.
Duke ranks 16th in total defense – ahead of the Hurricanes and Wolfpack – while allowing only 20 points and 88.0 rushing yards per game.
The Blue Devils’ pass rush is a strength, too. They’ve got three players with at least three sacks, and their 3.17 sacks per game rank 13th in the country.
“They’re right on the verge of winning all their games,” Fisher said. “Defensively, very dynamic. … (They) love to blitz you.”