DURHAM — Immediately after the 45-7 loss to Florida State, Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell was already thinking ahead.
We have three, four more weeks, however long it is, and were going to get ready to play another game, he said. Were going to go out with a bang.
Sunday afternoon, the No. 22 Blue Devils learned their bowl fate, as they are headed to Atlanta to play No. 20 Texas A&M Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. (ESPN). They will follow their matchup with the Heisman Trophy favorite (FSUs Jameis Winston) with a match against last seasons winner (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel).
The Aggies, in their second year as an SEC team, have never faced the Blue Devils. Texas A&M sports the top total offense in its league, averaging 538.2 yards per game, but the worst total defense, surrendering 460.3 yards to opponents. Nationally, the Aggies rank fourth offensively (Duke 69th with an average of 408.1 yards per game) and 106th defensively (with the Blue Devils coming in at No. 72, surrendering 408.5 yards per contest).
The softer defense will be a welcome sight for Duke, which mustered seven points against the Seminoles defense, ranked third best in the nation. Running back Josh Snead found the end zone from five yards out with one minute, one second remaining in the game. Through three quarters (at which point Florida State led 38-0), the Blue Devils had gained just 149 yards, with average of 2.8 yards per play. Three turnovers two interceptions and a fumble by quarterback Anthony Boone didnt help either.
After the game, coach David Cutcliffe pointed to the offenses inability to sustain drives as the reason the Blue Devils defense became more porous over the course of the game. Duke held FSU scoreless in the first quarter, something no other team had done this year. The Seminoles led 17-0 at halftime and put the game away in the third quarter.
We didnt make enough first downs during that stretch on offense, he said. And our defense wears a little bit.
When presented with that fact after the game that the offensive struggles led to the defenses downfall Cockrell didnt take that as an excuse.
Defensively, youve got to step up and make plays for the team, he said. They always say that defense wins championships. You cant give up those kinds of points and plays if you want to win the game.
In the Virginia Tech game, there were similar things going on, and the defense stepped up (Duke did not complete a pass in the second half). In a game like this, the defense has to continue to step up. Florida State is a very good team, so it is what it is.
Still, there were encouraging signs from the defense. Duke came out with a level of physicality it had not previously revealed, knocking the Seminoles around with more than a few tough hits, serving notice that Duke was playing to win.
Some of those blows got under our skin a little bit, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith said. Ultimately, the Seminoles were able to sustain their physical play for longer than their worn-down Duke counterparts.
You got to play the game clean, but this is a man's game and you have to be that way and we like to practice that way and we like to play that way and Duke did, too, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. My hat's off. They had some great hits, clean hits.
One hit late in the fourth quarter was deemed illegal, as Duke safety Dwayne Norman was ejected for targeting, leading with the crown of his helmet as he leveled FSU tight end Nick Leary. Norman, a reserve, will miss the first half of the Chick-fil-A bowl, too. The Blue Devils will also be without right tackle Perry Simmons, a first-team Academic all-American who had started all 50 games of his career. He tore his left ACL and MCL against the Seminoles. Redshirt sophomore Lucas Patrick will fill his spot.
The rest of the Blue Devils should be ready to go against Texas A&M. And even before the final confetti flakes had fallen on the FSU trophy celebration, Duke was focused on ending the historic season on a high note.
Losing is always tough, but in any game, youve got to learn, whether you win or you lose, Cockrell said. And tonight, we learned a lot about ourselves. We still have a great family union on this team. A lot of character guys. And were going to come back for the bowl game, and I think were going to be strong.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley