Duke could not have gotten off to a much worse start. Just 43 seconds into the season, the Blue Devils surrendered a long touchdown on a catch-and-run by Florida International running back Kedrick Rhodes. On the ensuing possession, Duke’s offense looked just as shaky, going three and out.
But the rest of the night could not have gone more differently, as the Blue Devils (1-0) cruised to a 46-26 victory over the Golden Panthers (0-1) in their season opener.
After two disappointing minutes, Duke started catching breaks. Will Monday kicked a low line drive for the first punt of his career, but linebacker C.J. France forced a fumble on the return, which the Blue Devils recovered.
Duke took advantage of its second chance, overcoming several undisciplined penalties and a fourth down to score on a two-yard touchdown run by Brandon Connette.
Florida International came back with a drive of its own, but the Blue Devils stuffed the Golden Panthers on consecutive running plays to take over possession. Just when it appeared Florida International had recovered momentum by picking off Sean Renfree, Duke sniffed out a wide receiver reverse and forced a fumble, setting the Golden Panther offense back and forcing a long field goal attempt, which missed low and to the left.
After a pair of nine-yard runs by Josh Snead, the Blue Devils ended the quarter on a 46-yard bomb to Vernon.
As the quarter ended, the Duke faithful got even more good news as Blair Holliday (who was injured over the summer in a jet ski accident) addressed the crowd via a recorded video message. The video sent the crowd, already excited about Duke’s performance to that point, into a tizzy.
The Blue Devils blew open the game with a spectacular offensive outburst in the second quarter, scoring 30 points in the period. On the first play from scrimmage, Brandon Connette lined up behind Sean Renfree, who motioned out as a receiver. Connette faked a handoff and then hit a wide-open David Reeves in the end zone.
After forcing a three-and-out, Duke’s offense would need just three plays, including another long pass to Vernon, to cover 77 yards for another score. Although the Golden Panthers continued to rack up yards, the Blue Devils clearly had momentum. When Florida International closed the gap to six, Duke responded with another quick touchdown drive.
Just before halftime, though, the Blue Devils made the play that all but solidified their win. With the half winding down, the Golden Panthers launched a drove down to the Duke 13-yard line with just five seconds left to set up a 30-yard field goal attempt. A make would have cut the deficit to less than two touchdowns and given Florida International momentum going into the half. Instead, linebacker Austin Gamble made an athletic play to block the kick and Ross Cockrell scooped up the ball, returning it 75 yards for a touchdown to give Duke a 37-14 lead at the half.
After opening the second half with a five-minute touchdown drive capped off by a 4th-down touchdown pass to Conner Vernon, it appeared the Blue Devils would keep pouring it on. Instead, both teams cooled off offensively, exchanging drives that never really amounted to much.
Although Duke’s backups surrendered another two touchdowns in the game’s final minutes, the Blue Devils had the matchup well in hand.