With a punishing hit on Rashad Greene, closing quickly to separate Greene from the ball and leave him stunned on the ground, Deondre Singleton served notice that Duke had not come to the ACC title game merely to collect a participation medal.
Duke was in it to win it. The Blue Devils had their shot. And they lost. Getting this far will offer no consolation for the 45-7 loss Saturday.
The better team won, which is fine. The Blue Devils started well enough on defense -- they kept the Seminoles off the board in the first quarter for the first team all season -- but Duke’s offense was completely stymied, the previously reliable running game shut down, Anthony Boone ineffective at quarterback.
It was out there, though. The confluence of circumstances that would have given Duke a chance to win the game actually happened in the first quarter, starting with a Florida State fumble in the red zone and a shaky start from quarterback Jameis Winston, who looked like someone who had spent the week with something else on his mind.
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The No. 1 team in the country is going to leave very few openings. Florida State offered more than its share, but Duke failed to shoulder its way through any of them -- and never gave Brandon Connette a chance to try, sticking with Boone at quarterback until the Blue Devils were down 38-0.
The missed opportunities were scattered all over the field like the confetti that would later garnish the trophy presentation. Ross Martin’s missed field goal, at the end of a 15-play drive, would have given Duke the game’s first lead. Boone threw two interceptions, among many errant passes.
“We felt like we were playing pretty good,” Duke wide receiver Jamison Crowder said. “After that, things just kind of went the other way.”
Then there was the decision to punt on fourth-and-3 from the Florida State 43 late in the first half, down 14-0. That turned into a 17-0 deficit at halftime after Florida State marched right down the field -- and the Seminoles never stopped in the second half. Duke was going to have to take some chances to win this game. Why not there?
“I just thought it would be better to try to just leave the score as is and come back out and play the second half,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Nobody in a while had played them as well as we played them the first half. I didn’t want to give them the ball, if we took a sack right there, near midfield. But it ended up, obviously, backfiring.”
It was only 11 months ago on this same field that the Blue Devils suffered a heartbreaking Belk Bowl loss to Cincinnati after Josh Snead’s fumble at the goal line. In the grim moments after that game, the seeds of this season were sown. The Blue Devils, not satisfied with mere bowl participation, set the bar higher.
They cleared it, making it this far and playing for a title, but instead of an improbable upset of the Seminoles, they’re likely to spend New Year’s Eve in Atlanta’s Chick-fil-A Bowl. It’s a soft landing, but a fall nonetheless. Snead, at least, scored the late consolation touchdown.
“There are no moral victories here,” Duke offensive lineman Dave Harding said. “We got beat and it’s unacceptable. We came in with the expectation of winning even though nobody else gave us a chance. Anything short of that was not what we were hunting.”
Duke needed to play a near-perfect game to beat the Seminoles, and the Blue Devils didn’t. It’s that simple. They matched them hit for hit and turnover for turnover, and it wasn’t enough.