Rushing attack, more James Blackman fourth quarter magic give Florida State much-needed win

Coming off of a home loss to bitter in-state rival Miami, which was already its third setback of the young season, Florida State traveled to Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C., for a matchup with Duke, which has never defeated the Seminoles history.

Florida State entered 19-0 all time against Duke, its most wins against an opponent without a loss in school history. However, the Seminoles sat at 1-3 for the first time since 1976 and hoped to avoid their first 1-4 start since 1975.

The Blue Devils, who entered the game Saturday on a two-game skid, were ranked No. 3 in the country in third-down defense, while the Seminoles were No. 120 in third-down conversions. Something had to give.

Playing without receiver Keith Gavin, 18-year-old freshman quarterback James Blackman needed support not just from his shoddy offensive line but his surrounding playmakers, as well. He received just that, as the signal caller had his best game of the season and fueled another fourth quarter rally to help lead FSU to a 17-10 win.

Coach Jimbo Fisher put Blackman in position to succeed immediately, calling quarterback runs, rushes for his deep backfield as well as throws such as quick slants, rollouts and swing screens — passes that involved quick decision-making. Florida State’s 12-play, 83-yard opening drive was arguably its best of the season, as it lasted 6 minutes, 29 seconds and resulted in an Auden Tate’s 20-yard scoring reception. On the day, Blackman completed 18 of 21 passes for 197 yards in his fourth career start.

Cam Akers, who was coming off of a career-high 121 yards last week against Miami, and Jacques Patrick were heavily involved in the opening drive as Fisher remained committed to the ground game that is vital for the team’s offensive success with Deondre Francois out for the year. Nyqwan Murray and Tate were featured as well, as Fisher relied a lot on moving the pocket to simplify Blackman’s reads as well as camouflaging the team’s offensive line woes. FSU has a new left side of the O-Line, but it didn’t affect an offense that recorded 11 first downs in the opening quarter as Blackman went 7 of 7 through the air.

But on the first play of the second quarter, a miscommunication on third-and-20 between Blackman and Murray resulted in Duke’s 11th interception of the year, as Mark Gilbert snuffed out a 10-play, 56-yard drive. David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils eventually settled for an Austin Parker 37-yard field goal to cap off a 15-play, 66-yard drive that covered 6:14 to make it a 7-3 game.

As its defense began to adjust to Florida State’s overall speed and athleticism, its offense continued to generate offensive momentum and drive again inside of FSU territory. But it was taken away on a critical turnover. Emmett Rice intercepted a deflected running back pass from Shaun Wilson, who entered with 3,995 career all-purpose yards, to kill a 7-play, 49-yard drive. There were a couple of breakdowns in the Florida State secondary on the day, but overall Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones was limited to 204 passing yards with no touchdowns and limited big plays.

Florida State held a 7-3 lead at the half and had a couple of missed opportunities due to the interception as well as a few costly penalties — a theme that has been consistent throughout the year.

But after Florida State forced a Duke punt on its opening possession of the second half, the offense went on an 11-play, 88-yard drive that covered 6:40 and featured Patrick rushing for 41 tough yards and Blackman connecting with Murray for 38 more. It ended with a Ricky Aguayo 23-yard field goal to keep Duke within a touchdown at 10-3.

Duke’s offense struck back, however, as Jones connected with T.J. Rahming on a 57-yard strike on third-and-17 at the Duke 18 when the quarterback was on the move avoiding pressure. The big gain on the scramble was Duke’s longest pass play of the year. The 7-play, 75-yard drive ended with a Brittain Brown 9-yard touchdown run.

Blackman tossed another interception when he tried to make something happen, but he couldn’t get enough on his throw to an area with no Florida State receiver in sight. Other than the 2 picks, however, he continued to grow early in his young career. Other than the two interceptions, he was nearly flawless.

After the defense held, Florida State returned to Patrick and Akers on the ground. Blackman made critical third-down conversions to Murray and tight end Ryan Izzo before Akers galloped 42 yards to the end zone on a third-and-2. It was a beautiful 10-play, 91-yard drive that lasted 5:48, and Blackman showed once again he shines in the fourth quarter when it matters most.

Duke would have one last chance to tie it up after a defensive stand, as the Blue Devils offense took over at their 15-yard line with 1:32 remaining. Despite the pass rush boasting Brian Burns and Josh Sweat, Jones was able to drive his team inside of Florida State territory, but the Seminoles knocked down a long pass in the end zone to hold onto the victory.

Florida State converted on 6 of its 13 third downs and rushed for 228 yards against a run defense that came in allowing an average of 88 yards per game, good for seventh in FBS. Akers had 115 yards and averaged 7.7 per carry, while Patrick added 98. The dedication to the ground game by Fisher as well as his designed passes to make things easy for Blackman were critical for a team that desperately sought a road league victory.

Things may not have gone the way Florida State wanted them to early in the 2017 season, but grind-it-out victories such as the one over the Blue Devils at least will keep the Seminoles in the ACC Atlantic division race until a team such as Clemson or North Carolina State chooses to run away with it. Until then, anything can happen for a team that has about as much talent as any in the country.

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