Duke prepares for next ‘biggest ever’ game

Defensive back Brandon Johnson and Duke will need to slow Florida State’s high-powered offense when the teams meet Saturday in Tallahassee. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

For the third time in two months, Duke is preparing for the biggest game in program history.

The Blue Devils beat No. 9 Clemson on a national stage in the opener, putting up a program-defining win. That set up a 4-0 start, leading to an even bigger game, against No. 11 Notre Dame. Duke nearly upset the Irish, losing on a heartbreaking last-minute play.

A blowout of NC State last week puts the Blue Devils at 5-1, 2-0 in the conference and ready to play No. 4 Florida State, which sits atop the league at 6-0, 4-0, in a road game with the highest stakes any living Duke player, coach or fan has seen.

“The Clemson game was the opener, right?” Duke coach Mike Elko asked rhetorically. “So, there wasn’t a ton of finality to that one. It was just two teams that were playing on a national stage for the first time, trying to establish themselves. And as big as the Notre Dame game was and as huge of a stage that was, that was still a nonconference opportunity.

“Now you’re playing a prime-time game between two unbeaten teams in the ACC, and at the end of this, someone’s going to have a clearer path to Charlotte than the other one. That’s something that’s critical and that’s not lost on anybody in our locker room. It is an in-league, big stage, big opportunity for our guys to go kind of rise up to and take advantage of.”

It’s an old football adage — as you keep winning, the games get bigger, the spotlight brighter, the stakes higher and the challenge more daunting.

It’s a lesson that Clemson has learned over the last 10 years as the Tigers became regular contenders for the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame has known it since the leather helmet era as one of the most recognizable programs in college football and all of sports.

It’s also something Florida State learned generations ago.

Saturday won’t be the biggest game in program history for the Seminoles. It’s not even the biggest of the season for FSU — that would be a 45-24 win over then-No. 5 LSU in Atlanta to open the season. An overtime win over Clemson at Death Valley might also been a bigger game. And, if the Noles keep winning, the prospect of playing for an ACC title and a trip to the CFP might knock the Duke game from 2023 Florida State’s top five.

“I mean, there’s always going to be pressure,” said Seminoles coach Mike Norvell. “If you don’t play good, there’s going to be pressure on that end. If you are playing good, there’s going to be pressure to continue improvement and getting better. … Do I think there’s players that feel the pressure? Oh, man, we’re 6-0, here we go, we got to do this, this. Yeah, it’s human nature to want to continue.

“But ultimately, it’s still about you can’t get focused on the outside and the exterior. If you’re willing to give your attention to that, the pressure that comes with that, you’re going to miss out on the opportunity to grow and get better throughout the journey, the week, the game.”

Aside from the stakes and the pressure, the game promises to be a compelling matchup on Saturday night. Florida State has one of the nation’s top defenses. The Noles are allowing just 18.3 points per game, which ranks them in the top 25. They have one of the best red zone defenses and lead the ACC in defensive touchdowns.

Duke’s defense is even better. The Blue Devils are allowing half as many points as FSU, good for No. 4 in the nation. The Blue Devils are also No. 2 nationally in red zone defense.

“I think the performance of our defense — I don’t know that I would have sat here and told you I bet we’re not giving up 10 points a game midway through the season,” Elko said. “I don’t think I would have called that. So maybe the performance of the group is exceeding expectations.”

Elko’s defense will face its toughest challenge of the season in a Florida State team that is averaging 42.2 points, No. 7 in the nation and 11 points more than the Blue Devils — and the availability of star quarterback Riley Leonard for the game is still in question. The Noles have scored at least 30 points in 12 straight games, the second-longest active streak in football and second-longest in ACC history.

“There’s a challenge of being on the road that creates a whole different type of atmosphere and environment and level of emotions that you’ve got to push through,” Elko said of his team’s latest challenge. “I think our team is now used to going through a week where they’re talking about the game that we’re going to play. I think they’re used to having the idea of what a spotlight game is. But we haven’t done this on the road yet. So we’ll have to go do that, and there’ll be a new challenge for us to kind of rise to.”

And if Duke manages to rise to the challenge, then the biggest game in program history lurks somewhere down the road.