DURHAM, N.C. — Jimbo Fisher liked how his Florida State players worked through a week of practice following a third straight loss. Then his Seminoles stopped their skid with a performance they hope will be the first step in taking back control of their season.
EJ Manuel threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns to help Florida State beat Duke 41-16 on Saturday, giving the Seminoles their first win in a month after consecutive losses to Oklahoma, Clemson and Wake Forest.
To listen to Fisher, the second-year coach could see this coming all week.
"I saw one of the best weeks we've had, the way we were acting to things and the way they were coming together," Fisher said. "Hopefully they'll continue to do it and remember how this feels."
Manuel had three completions of at least 50 yards in the first quarter, including a perfectly thrown 50-yard scoring toss deep over the middle to Rodney Smith. Manuel followed with a 51-yard throw out of his own end zone to Kenny Shaw on the next drive, which ended with Devonta Freeman's 10-yard TD run a minute into the second quarter that helped the Seminoles (3-3, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) run out to a 24-3 lead.
Florida State had no trouble holding that lead to earn its first victory since a 62-10 romp over Charleston Southern on Sept. 10. The Seminoles also improved to 17-0 all-time against the Blue Devils (3-3, 1-1).
"I think (the coaches) were hard on us and encouraged us at the same time," said defensive tackle Everett Dawkins, who intercepted a tipped pass on Duke's first drive. "It was something that we needed. Just being hard on somebody is definitely not going to get it done, but also at the same time, making sure people know where they're making mistakes at helps out a lot — and that's what they did."
Duke had won three straight games to build some optimism in David Cutcliffe's fourth season. But this game ended up looking a lot like every other trip the Seminoles have made to Wallace Wade Stadium since joining the ACC two decades ago — with the Blue Devils failing to make it to the end zone until the fourth quarter when the outcome was all but decided.
"If we had been consistent on executing offensively, we could have kept that a close ball game," Cutcliffe said. "We just could not stay on the field."
Duke finished with a season-low 289 yards, while Florida State pressured Sean Renfree with five sacks and batted several of his passes at the line of scrimmage. Juwan Thompson ran for a 1-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter for the Blue Devils, while Renfree threw short TD pass to Cooper Helfet.
"We didn't execute, and we picked it up in the second half," receiver Conner Vernon said. "But with a team like that, you have to play four quarters, not two."
Manuel also ran for 62 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 3-yard scoring pass to Nick O'Leary midway through the third quarter gave Florida State its largest lead at 34-3, then he answered the Thompson and Helfet touchdowns by scoring on a 6-yard keeper with 9:49 left. That made it 41-16, giving the Seminoles at least 40 points in all seven trips to Durham.
Strange as it sounds, FSU desperately needed to beat Duke. The Seminoles entered the year with hopes of contending for a national championship only to see them dashed by the end of September.
They beat overmatched opponents in their first two games and stood at No. 5 nationally heading into a home game with then-No. 1 Oklahoma. But Manuel sprained his left shoulder in the third quarter of that 23-13 loss, then missed the loss at Clemson before returning after the off week as a reserve at Wake Forest.
Manuel completed 19 of 35 throws for 286 yards and two scores, but he threw two interceptions as part of the Seminoles' five turnovers in last week's 35-30 loss that dropped them out of the rankings.
At least now Florida State has a conference win to build on.
"I think any win is good for us," Manuel said. "It doesn't matter whether it was against Duke or against Oklahoma."