Improving Duke looks to put up fight vs. FSU

Published Oct. 26, 2012 10:27 a.m. ET

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Forget about the logo on the helmet or the names on the jerseys for a minute.

There's a team in the ACC that has scored 33 or more points in all six of its wins. It's averaging 289 passing yards per game. It has a senior quarterback and playmaking receivers. Its coach has an impressive resume in both the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, and he has mentored two quarterbacks that have won Super Bowls.

This team is Duke, which is 6-2, leads the Coastal Division and is bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994. And when the Blue Devils travel to Tallahassee to play Florida State (7-1, 4-1 ACC) on Saturday, it will be a matchup of the ACC’s division leaders.

A rivalry that has been hot in basketball the past few years – FSU has upset Duke in three of the last four meetings – now offers up what could be a surprisingly entertaining late October football game.

But what Duke has done in 2012 does not surprise Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

“One thing you learn about college football is that nothing is predictable,” Fisher said. “They have a great staff, a lot of guys that have success in a lot of places. They have a lot of older guys, too. So you have a lot of experience.”

Of Duke’s 22 starters on offense and defense, 16 are juniors or seniors and four are redshirt sophomores. That experience is the reason that Duke has gone 3-1 in the ACC.

Senior quarterback Sean Renfree has thrown for 1,793 yards and 11 touchdowns, guiding a Duke offense that averages 289 passing yards per game (placing the Blue Devils 22nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision). Renfree is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and a prototypical drop-back passer who has excelled under the guidance of coach David Cutcliffe, whose former pupils include quarterbacks like the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning.

“Sean is a complete football player,” Cutcliffe said.

And Renfree has a trio of playmaking receivers in seniors Conner Vernon (51 catches, 749 yards, five touchdowns) and Desmond Scott (43 catches, 437 yards, one touchdown) and sophomore Jamison Crowder (51 catches, 629 yards, five touchdowns). Vernon, a former standout at Miami Gulliver Prep, has had quite a career, accumulating 3,424 receiving yards going into Saturday.

He is also just 93 yards from tying the all-time Atlantic Coast Conference receiving record, held by former Florida State receiver Peter Warrick (3,517 yards).

“He’s much quicker and faster than people think,” Fisher said. “Tremendous hands. He’s precision when he runs routes. As a coach you really enjoy watching him play because of the time and the dedication it takes to get to that level.”

While Duke’s offense has helped the team to its best season in nearly two decades, the defense has talented pieces but has struggled to stop quality opponents. In Duke’s two losses, Stanford scored 50 points and Virginia Tech rallied to score 41 points.

The Blue Devils don’t match up very well on the defensive line, so the coaches have opted for a 4-2-5 alignment that allows them to place their talented defensive backs in position to make plays. Senior safeties Walt Canty (74 tackles) and Jordon Byas (48 tackles) along with junior cornerback Ross Cockrell (43 tackles) are Duke’s three leading tacklers.

Despite all of Duke’s success in 2012, the Blue Devils can’t erase a few things. They have not played a top-25 opponent, and their six wins have come against teams with a combined record of 18-28. Duke’s biggest win was a last-minute 33-30 victory over North Carolina (5-3) last week.

Florida State, ranked 12th in the BCS standings, has an offense that is ranked seventh in scoring (44 points per game) and fifth in scoring defense (12.6 points per game). The Seminoles will be – by far – the biggest challenge Duke has faced.

And then there is the history: Florida State is 17-0 all-time against Duke. The Seminoles have won every game by double digits, including a 41-16 victory in Durham, N.C., last year.

Florida State has learned its lesson from the loss at N.C. State three weeks ago. Players respect what Duke has accomplished. But the loss to the Wolfpack is still fresh, and they know not to take any team lightly.

“You can’t overlook Duke at all,” Florida State cornerback Nick Waisome said. “They are definitely a great team. We can’t relax on any team.”

No matter what the logo is on the helmet or the names that are on the jerseys.