FSU vs Duke Preview and Prediction

Florida State’s game on Saturday has everything you could ask for in a college football game; it is sold out, in prime time, a night game, Top 25 matchup, homecoming, recruits galore, and a battle for one of the last undefeated spots in the ACC.

When you hear all that, you probably think, but wait, we already played Clemson? What Mike Elko has done at Duke in his short time there has been nothing short of incredible. They come in as one of the hottest underdog stories of the season. They started the year with a 28-7 blowout win over Clemson and were just one 4th & 16 stop away from beating a top-15 Notre Dame team.

However, the biggest storyline of the game is whether Duke quarterback Riley Leonard will even be able to play. And if he does, how close to 100% he will be after sustaining a high ankle sprain against Notre Dame just over two weeks ago. Riley is a big part of their offense, and while they did manage to put it on NC State (24-3) without him, beating the fourth-ranked team on the road is a different animal. Judging by the 14-point spread, it appears Vegas believes he won’t play or at least won’t be at 100%.

When we talk about this Duke team, we’ll follow a similar approach as we did last week with Syracuse. Duke has played Clemson and Notre Dame, who are comparable to FSU. The rest of their schedule has been against pretty bad teams. For example, in advanced metrics, FSU ranks 10th, ND ranks 11th, and Clemson comes in at 14th, so it makes sense to separate those games considering the other FBS teams Duke has played ranked 56th, 88th, and 123rd.

Here are a few more things that are important to point out in this game. First, Duke has only played one road game this season, and it was against UConn (1-5) with a reported attendance of 29k fans. A sold-out Doak will be a significantly more challenging environment, especially with a backup quarterback if Leonard doesn’t play.

Their two biggest games (Clemson and ND) were at home, at night. While Wallace Wade stadium might not be known for noise, being at home at least means Duke doesn’t have the crowd against them, which will be the case on Saturday.

We heard Boston College players talk about how they had a hard time communicating in last year’s sold-out night game. One miscommunication because of the noise could be the deciding factor in a game of this magnitude, so it’s important for Nole fans to bring their A-game as well!

The other thing I will mention about this Duke team under Mike Elko is they are simply a well-coached team. Not only do they play with discipline and intensity, but they don’t commit many penalties or mistakes. Despite only having something like two Blue Chip players on their entire roster, Duke has been able to compete with teams that have a talent advantage because of how they play.

It will be crucial for FSU to play a clean game and avoid the mistakes that would let Duke make a run at them as we saw in the Clemson game. Duke gets full credit for winning that game, but the outcome had as much to do with what Clemson did to themselves as anything else.

When we discuss this offense, it’s impossible not to have two conversations depending on which quarterback plays on Saturday. Riley Leonard is the heart of their offense, and until last week, when he didn’t play, he was also their leading rusher too. That’s why a high ankle sprain is such a big deal, even if Leonard is able to play being a dual-threat guy.

Leonard is an efficient passer, but he’s not going to wow you very often with his arm. He’s only thrown 3 passing touchdowns on the year, and his Big Time Throw Rate of 1.5% is 75th out of 81 Power 5 quarterbacks with a similar sample set. However, he has only thrown one interception this season, and his Turnover Worthy Play Rate of 1.9% is top 10 among Power 5 quarterbacks. They don’t push the ball down the field through the air much, with less than 10% of passes being over 20 yards.

What makes Leonard so dangerous is his running ability. He accounted for 98 of Duke’s 199 rushing yards against Clemson and 88 of 189 against ND. More importantly, he is able to avoid pressure behind an offense line that has struggled with pass blocking this year.

Leonard was under pressure 50% of dropbacks against Clemson and 55.6% against ND. (note: They were without an All-ACC LT vs ND) Despite all the pressure, Leonard only has a pressure-to-sack ratio of 8.8%, proving how valuable he is at helping to avoid the rush. If he plays but is not mobile, the FSU front 7 should be able to punish him with pressure in this one.

If Leonard is out and backup Henry Belin IV plays, it will obviously change their offensive approach. It was big for his confidence to get a win at NC State, but he only completed four passes for 107 yards against the Wolfpack. Berlin did throw 2 touchdowns but also threw an interception on his second pass of the game. He can use his legs and had a 28-yard run against NC State, but he’s nowhere near the dual-threat that Leonard is. His pressure-to-sack ratio is almost triple Leonard’s at 22.2%, which could present an opportunity for FSU’s dominant defensive line to have a big impact on the game.

One of the more interesting numbers that jumped out when looking at the NC State game is Duke only running 42 plays. That’s 20 fewer plays than Duke typically runs with Leonard at quarterback. Asking Berlin to step in and beat a top-five team on the road is obviously a big ask for a freshman quarterback with little experience running this offense in a game situation.

Whoever plays at quarterback won’t be alone. Duke has some other talented playmakers on offense. Running back Jordan Waters is averaging 6.55 YPC with 9 touchdowns, so far this season. Although he only averaged 3.5 YPC against Notre Dame, his 123-yard performance helped Duke get past the Wolfpack when they needed someone to step up in Leonard’s absence.

At receiver, their two top guys are Jordan Moore and Jalon Calhoun. They are consistent targets that are talented players, but it’s in a passing offense that ranks 113th in the country. Both receivers have only accounted for one 100-yard game between them this season. It’s not a bad receiving core, but FSU has seen better ones this season.

When we extract the numbers from the two games against better defenses and compare them to what they did against the rest of their schedule, it gives you a better idea of what to expect against FSU.

Their points per game total drops from 36.3 to 21. Yards per play fall from 7.1 to 5.48, and their havoc rate allowed jumps from 7.5% to 12% (which includes NC State having a 14% havoc rate last week).

Of the 57 pressures Leonard has seen this season, 38 came against Clemson and ND at 19 each. Those teams lived in the backfield against Duke, and I think FSU can do the same.

The Blue Devil offense has been pretty boom or bust this season. They only scored on 17% of their drives against ND, and 50% went for less than 10 yards. Last week against NC State, 152 of their 301 total yards came on two plays. Five of eleven drives went for less than 10 yards, and the Duke offense had an abysmal 29% success rate.

If FSU can limit the run and make Duke pass to win this game, I think it will be a long night for the Blue Devils. So much of the matchup in this game will depend on Riley Leonard’s health and availability. While Elko said Wednesday, it’s likely that he plays, in my opinion, that is coach speak to play games with FSU. Even if he does play, one would have to imagine that he won’t be at 100% after an injury that looked fortunate to only be an ankle sprain.

Duke head coach Mike Elko is a defensive-minded guy, so there is no surprise that Duke has a legitimate defense. Entering the 2023 season, Duke returned 99.5% of their yardage from last season compared to 67.4% of their tackles. It looked as if the offense would be their strength, and while they have been good (28th in advanced metrics), their defense has been the stronger of the two (12th in advanced metrics).

Aided by some veteran players and Power 5 transfers, the Duke defense has performed well this season. They are currently ranked 4th in scoring defense (9.8 PPG), 8th in passing defense (165 YPG), 11th in YPP allowed (4.44), and 2nd in red zone defense.

They have an impactful defensive line, which will be the biggest challenge for the FSU offense on Saturday night. Duke pressured Cade Klubnik on 42.6% of his dropbacks despite only blitzing 25.5% of the time. They pressured Sam Hartman on 54.1% of dropbacks without blitzing that much more at just 37%.

I will also point out that while Duke has a top-10 pass defense, the best passing offense they have faced was Notre Dame at 49th, and they were down two receivers in that game. The Irish threw for 222 yards, almost 60 yards above what Duke typically allows through the air. FSU is currently sitting at 37th in passing offense and should have Johnny Wilson back for this game.

Protecting Jordan will be priority number 1 in this game. If they do that, I feel good about what the offense can do. It won’t be easy against a well-coached defense that creates pressure up front without blitzing a lot. However, this will be the best offense Duke has faced all year, and let’s be honest, not many teams have a Johnny Wilson or Keon Coleman, and FSU has both. The Noles have also seen the running game get going the last two weeks, which should help keep the chains moving against the 63rd-ranked rushing defense.

As we did with the offense, when you look at Duke vs ND and Clemson compared to the rest of their schedule, the numbers change, just not as dramatically as they did on offense. Points per game allowed goes from 7.6 to 14, which would be 21 if Clemson didn’t fumble twice inside the 10-yard line, and yards per play allowed jumps from 4.02 to 6.09.

It will also be crucial for FSU to come away with points in the red zone. Until last week, FSU was perfect in the red zone, and Duke’s defense has been great and keeping teams from scoring. FSU is on a 12-game streak of scoring over 30 points, and while Duke held their two best opponents to 21 or less, I still think FSU hits the thirty-point mark for the 13th time this week.

Florida State will be looking for their first win over a ranked team in Doak Campbell Stadium since they upset #5 UNC in 2020. Meanwhile, Duke will look to prove they can win away from Durham. The Blue Devils haven’t beaten a ranked team on the road since all the way back in 2014 when they beat #22 Georgia Tech. Of course, we all remember the last meeting between these two programs as ranked teams when FSU wiped the floor with Duke 45-7 in the 2013 ACC championship game.

The Noles are a perfect 21-0 against Duke all-time, but this isn’t the same old Duke team. After Notre Dame’s throttling of USC last weekend, the Blue Devils were one stop away from having two of the better wins in college football.

Obviously, the single biggest factor in this game will be Riley Leonard’s availability and overall health. Without Leonard, or even a Leonard that’s not close to 100%, it’s hard to see a path for Duke to pull the upset against the best team in the toughest environment they will have seen all season.

No matter who plays at quarterback, I still feel good about FSU getting the win if they just play their own game and don’t make too many mistakes that would let Duke stay within striking distance. Clemson lost because of turnovers and missed field goals. Notre Dame left points on the field due to costly penalties in the red zone and a missed field goal because they very well could have been up by 20 points in the second quarter.

FSU knows what’s at stake, and the intensity in practice has ramped up this week. Doak will be rocking, and FSU is coming off back-to-back solid performances against conference opponents. As far as Duke has come, I think the Blue Devils get handed their second loss this week.

Before I give my score prediction, I will also mention that FSU, Duke, and UNC are undefeated in conference play. Even if Duke loses this game but wins out because they play UNC later this year, they could still make the ACC Championship game. While I’m not a member of Duke’s coaching or medical staff, if they play an unhealthy Leonard and risk further injury, that seems shortsighted, knowing there’s still a lot they can achieve going forward.

With the uncertainty at quarterback, I’ll give two score predictions. With Leonard (who I don’t think will be close to 100%), I’ll take FSU to win 34-20. Without Leonard, I think it’s a long night for the Blue Devils, and FSU runs away with it 38-17.

In case you were curious, if Leonard was available and at 100%, I could see this being a close game at around 31-24 FSU.

It is going to be a fun Saturday night in a packed Doak Campbell Stadium, and I can’t wait to watch the Noles put on a show in a nationally televised game at 7:30 on ABC. Thanks for reading, and Go Noles!!

Saturday night.

Prime time.

Sold out Doak Campbell Stadium.

Ranked matchup.

That’s the setting as 16th-ranked Duke (5-1, 2-0) comes to Tallahassee to take on 4th-ranked Florida State (6-0, 4-0) before a sold-out crowd. Duke is coming off a 24-3 win with their backup QB over NC State, while FSU is coming off a dismantling of Syracuse.

The big question in the game is the status of Duke’s star QB Riley Leonard, who was injured at the tail end of the Notre Dame game. Riley missed last week as Head Coach Mike Elko listed him as day-to-day. If he plays, will he be close enough to 100% to have an impact on the game where he will face one of the best defensive lines in the country? Riley is second on the team in rushing with 326 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and four touchdowns. He’s also completing almost 63% of his passes with three touchdowns. If he can’t go, Duke will turn to their back QB in Henry Belin IV, who played last week vs NC State.

The NOLES’ defense nearly shut out Syracuse last week and held Virginia Tech to 10 offensive points scored two weeks ago. In fact, since the second half of the Clemson game, FSU has only given up twenty total points in nine quarters. If Riley plays, I do not expect him to be at 100% which will severely limit his best trait, his legs. If he can’t go, I expect FSU to try and force Belin to win the game with his arm while keeping him contained in the pocket.

The matchup to watch is FSU’s offense vs Duke’s top-five defense. Duke comes into the game ranked 4th in points allowed averaging 9.8 pts given up. That’s mainly due to the fact that Duke doesn’t allow many drives to get into the red zone. Verses the four Power Five schools they’ve faced on the season, Duke has allowed only 13 of 45 drives to reach their red zone (28%). Duke is also 11th in the nation in yards given up per play at 4.4 yards.

With all that being said, this will be the best team in terms of completeness that Duke will see this season. When you watch the games against Clemson and Notre Dame, you still see those teams moving the ball on offense with some ease between the 20s. You also see those teams’ defensive line penetrating on a semi-consistent basis in Duke’s backfield. Based on that, I have the NOLES winning in prime-time fashion.

35-21 Noles win (If Riley plays)

38-10 Noles win (If Riley doesn’t play)

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