On Duke's opening possession they showed some confidence, a little bit of grit, grinding out a couple of first downs before punting to Florida State and giving them a long field to work with. It wasn't a score, but it did a reasonable job of flipping field position and it showed the Seminoles that this Blue Devil team had some fight.
All season Duke had fought and scrapped and won. And now at 6-2, bowl eligible and sitting atop the ACC Atlantic they were looking to end their most ominous football streak, 17-straight losses to Florida State.
There are no moral victories in football, but Duke didn't succumb to the Florida State defense when they took the ball, they gained 28 yards, a couple of first downs and looked to stand tall on defense after punting.
Three plays later all of that was over.
After failed gadget play and an incomplete pass to James Wilder in the flat, EJ Manuel found Rashad Greene for a 71-yard touchdown to open the scoring and all but end Duke's chances. The play was relevent for a couple of reasons.
First, it was a clear-cut demonstration of the disparity in talent. Rashad Greene split through the Blue Devil secondary with ease. It was an obvious passing down but he took the lid off the coverage effortlessly and had a few steps when he hauled the pass in. By the time he got to the end zone he barely looked to be running. There was little doubt which side had the better athletes.
In just three plays Florida State traversed the entire field and did what it would later take Duke 14 plays and a couple of 15-yard penalties to do, scored.
After getting people across the nation to lean forward a little after an exciting win over UNC got them bowl eligible, it took Florida State's offense less than a minute to remind people, 'it's still Duke.'
Where the play really won though was in what it did to Duke mentally. The game wasn't over, Duke wasn't psychologically beat at that point. No one is in insinuating they packed it in. But after getting burnt deep on the opening series, that play struck mortal fear into the Duke defense the rest of the game.
That play changed the entire complexion of the game.
EJ Manuel was not that impressive on Saturday, he was 8 of 16 for 282 yards and a couple of touchdowns, but he was never 'on' so to speak. When Manuel plays his best game he's extremely impressive, he didn't really have it on Saturday but he did connect on four passes of 25 yards or more.
“We definitely took advantage of the plays we saw down field. The receivers did a great job, the o-line gave us some time to get down there and make some plays down field," said Manuel. "I wish my (completion) percentage was a lot better but we were still able to make some plays.”
Duke wasn't so much scared of Manuel for the game he was playing as they were scared of Florida State's ability to throw deep.
If you take out the passes that went 25+ yards, Manuel was even more unremarkable. This was one of the weaker passing games Florida State's offense has had. But the threat of that deep ball kept Duke from loading the box to attack the run. It loosened things up for Devonta Freeman and James Wilder.
“(It helped) tremendously," added Manuel. "A lot of those gaps, those guys were able to cut back. They were trying to play me on my fakes and things like that on the boot leg, so that kind of opened up the cut backs for our backs. They did a great job of seeing it.”
Without Florida State connecting on that deep pass to open things, with the game EJ Manuel did play, it's possible Duke defends Florida State's rushing attack a little differently and at least stays close for a while. Duke wasn't going to beat FSU, they were out-classed, but immediately demonstrating an ability to beat Duke deep made things even easier for Florida State on Saturday.
And I'm not trying to pile on Manuel, Duke did some different things coverage-wise and he also had to deal with some drops. But the game Manuel played Saturday versus the respect he got from the Duke defense were quite different. And that made a world of difference in how well the run game worked.
Florida State had been averaging 55 points and 600+ yards of offense, they were a hair below against Duke but had another great day, hanging 48 and 560.
But no points were as important as the first seven.