Historically speaking, FSU has had very little trouble with the Blue Devils. Some fans think that the inconsistencies this current Nole team has leaves them prime to be victims of the unthinkable, a home loss to Duke. Also, for the fourth time in a year, FSU will be changing quarterbacks, going back to the original starter Drew Weatherford. The biggest question coming in really is not is FSU susceptible to the upset, rather can they get some semblance of an offense going and play their first complete game of the season on both sides of the ball.
Duke has played well this season. Thaddeus Lewis has been a steady performer and is ranked 36th in efficiency in the nation. This is not the same Duke team we've seen over the last 5-10 years, as they are beginning to get the playmakers and personnel it takes to compete in a BCS conference. But, they are still a few players away from becoming more consistent and able to turn some of their close games into wins.
While Lewis has been a steady performer, his 16 passing touchdowns ranks 3rd in the ACC and 1,610 yards passing 4th, they have had problems getting the ball in the end zone. They come in 91st in the nation in scoring offense averaging 22 pointes per game. The fact that they are in the lower third of the nation in turnover margin has not helped this team in terms of dependable play on the offensive side of the ball. Adding to the turnover problems is the simple fact that Duke has lived and died off of the arm of Lewis. Duke's rushing attack has been paltry, coming in 118th in the nation averaging 66.86 yards per game.
Florida State's defense has had its ups and downs this year. Against Alabama, they looked like a top 5 defense. In the second halves against Wake Forest and Miami, they looked like a completely overmatched team. Which is the real FSU defense? Upon closer review it lies below a top 5 level, but it's far from the worst in the nation. The defensive line has battled injuries at the defensive tackle spot, but should get some relief this week when Budd Thacker comes back off of his toe injury. Andre Fluellen has continued to play tough with his hyper-extended elbow, but he not 100% yet. Marcus Ball, one of the top play-making linebackers in the ACC, injured his ankle in the Wake game and looks to be a week-to-week decision.
Even after the meltdown against the Hurricanes, FSU's total defense comes in 24th in the nation giving up 319.14 yards a contest. The rushing defense has been stellar at times, coming in 19th in the nation giving up 106 yards a game. The fact that they are averaging 9 tackles for loss has contributed to that number. On the final drive in the Miami game it looked as though the Noles wanted no part of stopping the run. FSU's pass defense has been very prone to the big plays, as we saw during this two game losing streak against Wake and Miami. FSU needs to grow and get better in the defensive backfield in order to stop a sound Duke passing attack. Giving up 19.9 points per game, the Noles look to have an edge against the Blue Devil offense.
For Duke it comes down to if they can move the ball on the ground; thus far though FSU has been inconsistent, teams cannot be one-dimensional and expect to move the ball against the Nole defense. The fact that Duke lacks the top end playmakers at receiver makes it even more important for them to be able to move the ball and put points on the board. Duke needs to gain 100-120 yards on the ground to beat the Noles, but their performance so far this year shows that may not be possible. It could be a long day on that side of the ball for the Blue Devils.
Like I stated earlier in this article, this game is going to come down to the quarterback play for FSU. After getting benched in the Alabama game and not seeing time the last 3 games, Drew Weatherford was named the starter this past week. The coaches felt that Weatherford brings more consistency at the start of the game, whereas Xavier Lee is better in a relief role, which is what we saw in Lee's best performance as a Nole against Alabama. This has been a hotly debated subject this week, but after 7 turnovers and unbelievably inconsistent play in the Wake and Miami games by Lee, a change may have been the right idea.
Drew Weatherford is 3-1 this year as a starter (the Alabama game is counted in that). He comes into the Duke game with a 54% completion rate, 642 yards passing, and 4 touchdowns to go qwith one interception. Th biggest gripe with Drew has been his lack of ability for the big play, and the fact that he doesn't take enough chances to make defenses honest. Maybe the biggest concern with Weatherford behind center, and the reason why he was pulled against Alabama, is that he doesn't move the ball, get points, or convert 3rd downs. With Drew as the signal caller, FSU was a dreadful 13-51 (25.5%) on 3rd downs. Drew states that the biggest thing he learned sitting on the bench was relaxing and letting the game flow. No one can argue that he is a great student of the game and that he has great knowledge of Jimbo Fisher's offense. Has the time watching shown him that he must take chances down the field, and learn what needs to be done to keep drives going.
For FSU it has been a learning experience this year on the offensive side of the ball. Coming into the Duke game ranked 88th in total offense (346 ypg), this game provides the Noles a chance to get healthy against a defense that's been giving up almost 34 points and 440 yards of offense per game. Maybe the highlight of the Miami game was the 100 yard performance by Antone Smith. It is crucial that the Noles build upon that and keep that going. With Duke giving up 166 ypg on the ground, look for Fisher and FSU to try to establish the running game early to ease Weatherford back into the flow of a real game.
It is safe to say that FSU has relied heavily on the passing game this year. Preston Parker has developed into one of the top playmakers in the ACC, and Greg Carr continues his assault on the ACC and FSU record books. What may hurt Duke the most is that they come in ranked 104th in passing defense, giving up 272 yards each contest. Teams have been able to out-athlete the Blue Devils and make the plays necessary in the passing game. The receivers must do a better job at finishing their routes and being more consistent in catching the ball. Against Miami, crucial and untimely drops killed drives that would have allowed the Seminoles to put the game away in the 4th quarter. If FSU can establish the run, get heady and better play at the quarterback position and get their playmakers the ball, they should be able to rack up yards and points against this Duke defense.
Duke is a very young football team that is getting better. With 36 freshmen, this team will most likely continue to take their lumps as they grow and learn from each game. Coming into Doak Campbell Stadium and pulling off the shocker would be this young team's signature win and would give this team confidence moving forward in the season.
FSU flat out needs this game. With four toss up games coming up, getting this win will aid in ensuring a 26th straight bowl appearance. After getting back into the top 25 after the N.C. State win, the Noles have fallen flat. Losing to a Miami team that may be the worst Hurricane team since the probation era knocked a lot of air out of the program. This is a game where, if they play to their full potential, they can coast in and gain some confidence before traveling up to Chestnut Hill to face the 2nd ranked Boston College Eagles. It has yet to be determined if the Noles will be able to do that, but the potential and ability is there. Drew must come out firing to gain the confidence of his teammates and coaches. It is a good possibility that this team will get a bit healthy, run the ball well, and win going away before they head into the toughest November schedule in the entire nation.PREDICTION: FSU 36 Duke 13