by Mike Potter
And tonight’s contest is likely to be a pretty good indicator for how David Cutcliffe’s sixth season at the helm will be.
The opponent is Florida International, which is marketing hard to become simply “FIU” in the vernacular of the sports fan.
Mario Cristobal’s Golden Panthers were the last team Duke beat, that a 31-27 nail-biter last Oct. 1 in Miami. FIU went 8-5 last season, losing something called the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl to end the campaign.
Duke pours on the points in a huge second quarter, rolling to a 46-26 win to start the season on the right foot.
The Golden Panthers score just two plays into the contest, with Jake Medlock connecting with Kedrick Rhodes for a 67-yard scoring bomb. Jack Griffin adds the kick.
Duke then takes advantage of a turnover to tie. After Jackson Anderson recovers a fumble at the Panthers’ 46, the Blue Devils take 10 plays to score on a two-yard run from Brandon Connette with 9:50 left in the quarter. Ross Martin adds the try.
The Blue Devils take the lead on the first play of the second, with Connette connecting with David Reeves from eight yards out to complete four-play, 72-yard drive. The biggest play of the drive is the one before that, a 46-yard connection from Sean Renfree to Conner Vernon. The conversion pass fails and Duke leads 13-7.
Duke stretches its lead to 20-7 with 12:30 left in the half as Josh Snead takes it in from 19 yards out and Martin adds the kick. It comes at the end of a three-play, 77-yard drive and Renfree hitting Vernon for 49 yards on the first play.
The Panthers come back on their next possession, going 80 yards in eight plays with Darian Mallary going in from eight yards out. Griffin’s kick made it 20-14 with 5:05 left.
But Duke comes right back, with Renfree connecting with Jamison Crowder on a 60-yard bomb at 3:26.
Martin’s 34-yard field goal with 1:03 to go in the half makes it 30-14.
And on the last play of the half, the Blue Devils’ Ross Cockrell returns a blocked field-goal attempt 75 yards for a touchdown with Martin converting to make it 37-14.
The Blue Devils get the killer with 10:43 left in the the third, as Renfree hits Vernon at the line of scrimmage and the receiver sprints 28 yards to pay dirt. Martin’s conversion makes it 44-14.
FIU gets a late touchdown as Kedrick Rhodes goes in from two yards out with 1:19 left, but Duke’s Kyler Brown returns the conversion pass all the way.
Renfree completes 21 of 30 passes for 290 yards and two TDs with one interception, while Vernon catches 10 passes for 180 yards and the score and Crowder six for 102 and his score. Vernon becomes Duke’s all-time receptions leader with 208.
Medlock completes 27 of 45 for 348 with two TDs. Rhodes carries 25 times for 130 and catches seven passes for 115 and the TD.
They said it …
Duke coach Cutcliffe: “It’s huge to come out with a victory. It was a little awkward start on offense, but then we got it revved. Defensively, I think we learned a lot about ourselves tonight. I think it’s going to help us grow. Overall, I’d grade it a really fine victory. I’m very pleased with our squad.”
FIU coach Cristobal: “We need to execute plays better. We always talk about it. When we win games we win them as a team, and we lose them as a team as well. We aren’t going to point fingers at a specific player or a specific coach or a specific call or a specific turnover. We’ve got to secure the ball better. We didn’t do that, and we gave them points.”
Vernon: “There’ve been a lot of good receivers at this university and in this conference, and just being able to have my name at the top of this great institution of prestigious football and also just a great institution overall, it’s just a humbling thing. It’s funny, I’m sure Donovan [Varner] has probably called me by now for taking his record. But it was good. I owe a lot to the offense and Coach Cut[cliffe]. Sean got me the ball and I just needed to do what I was out there to do.”
Renfree: “Anytime we can open up the season with a big victory like that, it’s always a lot of fun. Our preparation we put into it, it all paid off in the end. I think this one’s huge. Obviously, we’re going to move on. We’ve got a big opponent next week. Right now we’re going to celebrate and get ready to work tomorrow.”
What does it all mean?
That Duke had an awful lot of offense in Week 1, but will certainly have tests from stronger opposition coming soon.
Stars of the game
Play of the game
Cockrell’s blocked kick return.
Duke: Won 1.
FIU: Lost 2.
Duke leads 2-0.
FIU vs. Akron, Sept. 8, 6 p.m.
Duke at Stanford, Sept. 8, 10:30 p.m.