The hits kept coming. One harder than the next. But they were not delivered by the same team.
Indeed, Duke kept up with Florida State in the hard-hits department in the ACC championship game, an unusual sight when you consider past history.
Duke has had problems physically matching up with teams in the past. But one of the most notable differences between the Blue Devils this season and the Blue Devils of the past was the way they stood up to teams. Duke was rarely manhandled this season and imposed its will in many victories, a stark contrast to what folks have come to expect.
Though Florida State eventually wore Duke down, seeing the Blue Devils match the Seminoles physically in the early going was not really an aberration and surely bodes well for the future.
"We came out and played physical, and actually played physical on both sides of the ball," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after the game. "They are a very physical team. We knew we had to try to minimally match it, and for a while we took the edge, and we just couldn't take advantage of the opportunity."
Afterward, Florida State players expressed some surprise at the way Duke came out. Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said he believed the Seminoles were shocked with their blitz-first mentality.
"A lot of teams have been sitting back on their heels and just playing," he said. "That was our game plan, just to come after them from the jump, hit them in the mouth and that’s exactly what we were doing. But, things just didn’t go our way in the end."
Though the score was still lopsided, Duke played a much tougher style this season than its matchup a year ago. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said afterward, "They didn't get to this championship by being soft. They were a very physical team. If you're going to be a championship team, you cannot be soft."
The roots of that philosophy began when Cutcliffe arrived on campus. But players really started to believe they had the ability to beat teams physically this season during the Virginia Tech game in late October.
The Hokies present one of the most physical defenses in the ACC. Yet, Duke went into Blacksburg and won 13-10. To be sure, the game was filled with mistakes on both sides. But the Blue Devils' offensive front did not allow themselves to get overpowered.
The same thing happened a few weeks later in a 48-30 win over Miami -- Duke's first victory over the Hurricanes in ACC play. Duke ran for 358 yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry, essentially doing whatever it wanted against the Miami front.
Those two games helped propel the Blue Devils to their first ever ACC championship game appearance. Though they lost 45-7, they were not satisfied just to be in the game. The next step is to win a championship. The way there should involve the same type of physical play we saw this season.