CHARLOTTE — In the end, what seemed inevitable all week came to be. No. 1 Florida State completed its undefeated run to the BCS National Championship Game with a 45-7 win over Duke.
While there are no moral victories Duke coached and played to win the Blue Devils did keep the game competitive through the first half. Unofficially, the game was decided with nine minutes, 22 seconds left in the third quarter, at 10:20 p.m. real time. At that moment, Jameis Winston set a new ACC record for touchdown passes in a season, hitting Kenny Shaw for an 11-yard touchdown and a 24-0 lead. That came after an Anthony Boone interception, his second of the game.
They werent doing anything to confuse you, Boone said. They were just playing football. Going out there, lining up and playing football.
Duke crossed into the Florida State red zone with less than three minutes remaining in the game, and Josh Snead scored on a 5-yard rush with one minute, one second left. It was the exact same spot he fumbled at in last years Belk Bowl, a little cosmic revenge for the redshirt junior.
For Duke to have a chance, the Blue Devils had to avoid unforced errors and win the kicking game, as head coach David Cutcliffe likes to refer to special teams. Duke was unable to do either.
A Jamison Crowder 40-yard punt return in the second half went for naught, lost in a series of three-and-outs for the No. 20 Blue Devils (10-3). That was the last spark Duke show showed while the game was competitive.
Initially, Duke gave the Seminoles (13-0) all they could handle, becoming the first time this year to hold the Florida State offense scoreless in the opening quarter. Winston started slow for his standard, and Florida State punted on its first series and turned the ball over on its second. Running back Devonta Freeman ran 22 yards to the Duke 3-yard line, but Ross Cockrell forced the ball out and Jeremy Cash recovered to keep the Seminoles off the board.
Duke then embarked on its lone successful drive of the game while the outcome was in doubt a 15-play, 67-yard affair that ended with zero points, as Ross Martin missed a 48-yard field goal wide right. On the drive, quarterback Anthony Boone went 6-of-10 for 46 yards outside of that, he was 8-of-20 for 39 yards with two interceptions until he was pulled at the end of the third quarter (he returned in the fourth when Brandon Connette was hurt). The Blue Devils also converted two third downs on that single drive, but just one in 12 tries on all other drives through the third quarter.
After that lone sign of life from the offense (until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, long after the game was decided), the Blue Devils went three-and-out five straight times for a total of 12 yards. A final play before the half, a run by Juwan Thompson, netted four yards as the Blue Devils opted to let to clock run out, trailing 17-0.
Seven of Dukes eight first-half drives went three-and-out, with the Blue Devils averaging 2.6 yards per play through two quarters. Through three quarters, Duke had 21 rush attempts for just 62 yards. With the offense generating nothing, Dukes defense was in a no-win situation, charged with the impossible task of keeping the ACCs best offense and nations No. 2 unit, entering Saturday off the board.
We were on the field a little too much, head coach David Cutcliffe said of his defense. Theyve got big, strong, fast receivers, and theyre going to make plays. The more chances they get, the more theyre on the field, the more they make plays. And their defense does a good job getting the other offense off the field. Unfortunately, that worked well for them tonight.
Winston wasnt perfect his final numbers were 19 for 32 for 330 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions (both to freshman Breon Borders), with 10 rushes for 59 yards and another score. But that was more than good enough to send the Seminoles to their first national title game in 13 years. He set FBS freshman quarterback records for touchdowns (38) and passing yards (3,820), which will read nicely in his Heisman Trophy write-up next week. Kelvin Benjamin proved impossible to cover, catching five passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, the Blue Devils had opportunities. Cash had a chance to make a play on Winstons first touchdown pass, to Benjamin, but he couldnt locate the ball, as Benjamin hauled in the catch despite being covered by both Cash and freshman cornerback Bryon Fields.
The missed field goal in the first quarter was the most obvious chance to put points on the board, but there were two drops earlier in the drive, one by Jela Duncan and another by Johnell Barnes, that would have put Duke in better position to reach the end zone. Crowders 40-yard punt return in the second quarter was nullified by Boones first interception, on a throw he tried to force into a covered Jamison Crowder. Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner hauled it in, setting up the drive that would result in the Seminoles second touchdown. Earlier on that drive, FSU was facing second-and-19 from its 30-yard line, but three Blue Devils whiffed on tackling Freeman, who took a screen pass 22 yards for a first down.
On their final drive of the first half, the Blue Devils faced fourth-and-3 from the Florida State 43, but Will Monday came on to punt. It took FSU 58 seconds to tack on a 45-yard field goal for the 17-0 lead.
It was not at all the outcome Duke wanted. But the program that had its own lawyers successfully argue it was the worst FBS program in 2008 was in the ACC Championship game five years later. Duke still has its school-record 10 wins and will go to back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley