Charlotte – Florida State is good. Really good.
The Seminoles started slowly in the ACC Championship Game, playing to a 0-0 tie after the first quarter, but with sheer talent and a swarming defense, they eventually overwhelmed Duke in a 45-7 win that showed why they're the No. 1 team in the country.
“I thought our defense was the key to the night and I thought they played tremendous and kept things in check and then the offense got going and got really hot and made the plays,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
Fisher said the slow start was partly due to Duke playing good defense, but quarterback Jameis Winston had a different take.
“We beat ourselves in the first quarter,” Winston said.
It helped that, even with an ACC title and trip to Pasadena, Calif., for the national championship game on the line, FSU’s margin for error was so large.
Often when a team “wins” the turnover and penalty categories, it’s a recipe for a loss. After the first half, FSU led - or rather trailed - both categories with a 2-1 advantage in turnovers and 3-1 in penalties, but still led the game 17-0.
By the end of the game, the turnover margin had equalized, but FSU still had twice as many penalties (6-3).
FSU pressed on through the miscues. Devonta Freeman, James Wilder, Jr., Karlos Williams and Winston all chipped in with a strong run here and there to sustain drives and put points on the board. Kelvin Benjamin made the big-play catches he's been reeling in all year.
But Winston, the Heisman frontrunner who found out this week he wouldn’t be charged in a sexual assault case, was merely good. He started the game 1-for-6, wasn’t always sharp on his throws or decision-making in the pocket and threw two interceptions.
“I like to measure players when they don’t have their ‘A’ game,” Fisher said of Winston’s play. “When you’re just a hair off, and things aren’t going just right, that’s where you find the greatest players who can recover, bounce back and make the adjustments.”
To Winston’s credit he ended the game 19-for-32 for 330 yards and three touchdowns. And was named the game's MVP. Again, that’s when Winston was “off.”
But on the other side of the ball, the defensive line continued to stuff Duke’s rushing attack. Cornerbacks snuffed out Duke screen passes. And it seemed that whenever Duke got a smidge of momentum, FSU’s defense would force a turnover and snatch it right back.
“The defense put us in a (position) for us to break all those records because defense wins championships, and they won this game for us today,” Winston said.
After Duke missed a 47-yard field goal on its third drive of the game, the Seminoles didn’t give up any further scoring chances until the Blue Devils' final drive of the game. In total, FSU only allowed just 3.2 yards per carry and 6.7 yards per catch. Coming into the game, Duke averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 11.7 yards per catch.
“They’re very physical and fast,” said Duke quarterback Anthony Boone. “A lot of times we’d run the ball, and holes were opening, and they would close in milliseconds.”
And let’s be clear – Duke is good. Even though the Blue Devils have been the laughing stock of the ACC for the last two decades, they came into this game ranked 20th in the country, with a 10-2 record. With wins over Miami, Virginia Tech and UNC, this wasn’t just a fluke season.
So even with Florida State not on its ‘A’ game, the Seminoles still won by 38. In the ACC title game. Against a legitimate opponent. That’s really been par for the course this year for Jimbo Fisher's squad.
Against then-No. 25 Maryland? 63-0 FSU. Then-No. 3 Clemson? 51-14 FSU. Then-No. 7 Miami? 41-14. And now, No. 20 Duke? 45-7 FSU. That’s an average score of 50-9.
On Saturday night FSU used a bit of its margin for error, and still wound up with another large margin of victory.