DURHAM – The overwhelming sense of dread that has been characteristic of Wallace Wade Stadium for the better part of two decades made an appearance only 43 seconds into the new season.
Florida International wide receiver Kedrick Rhodes completed his zig-zag route to the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown reception on the Golden Panthers’ second play from scrimmage, creating the exact type of situation that has made many people laugh at Duke’s preseason optimism.
The Duke supporters fell silent, having seen the end to this story before. Like the parent of a trouble-maker receiving another call from the principal, the collective expression in the Duke crowd was a grim, what-did-he-do-this-time frown.
The quick extinction of energy from the stadium was the type of play that might have doomed Duke in previous seasons, though the Blue Devils not only survived the momentum wave this time, but created one of their own.
Duke was forced to punt on its next possession following FIU’s opening score but pounced on a fumble on the ensuing punt, then tied the game at seven.
The Blue Devils put the game to bed with 30 points in the second quarter, eventually winning, 46-26, perhaps proving a point it would not have in previous seasons: Mistakes will be made, but they aren’t fatal.
“We weren’t perfect for 60 minutes, but we were into the game for 60 minutes. What it amounted to was this: … Any break we got, we took advantage of,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We did what we had to do to take a commanding lead in the ball game after – what was it, their second play that they scored on? There was never a letdown. I hope that’s a great lesson learned.”
The feeling on Duke’s sideline was not here-we-go-again pessimism, but realization that it was one mistake.
“We knew it was a simple mistake,” safety August Campbell said. “We knew it was something small, so we had no worry at all.”
Duke (1-0) even created some of its own luck. The Blue Devils allowed the Golden Panthers to move almost the entire length of the field – and helped them with a foolish personal foul – to set up for a field goal on the last play of the first half. The snap was bad, and Duke was able to break through the line, block the kick, scoop the ball and run for a 75-yard touchdown with zeros on the clock.
Consider that the Blue Devils, in their Week 1 home loss to Richmond in 2011, went into halftime having mismanaged the clock. Duke was in field-goal range with no timeouts, but completed a meaningless short pass over the middle, letting time expire and receiving no points. The Blue Devils ended up losing by two.
“Even though (FIU) had taken the ball down the field, even though we had that 15-yard penalty to help them start that drive – everything was negative – our team rose up,” Cutcliffe said. “We played with more consistent intensity than we’ve played with here. That’s when those kind of plays – why they happen is kind of a mystery – but you watch games and you see teams that win games, that kind of stuff starts happening, right? You have to put yourself in position to make those plays.”
Duke started the second half with a nine-play, 74-yard touchdown drive to make the score 44-14.
In 19 minutes’ time, Duke had taken a tie game against a 2011 bowl team and turned it into a blowout. The momentum wave didn’t doom the Blue Devils this time.
“Momentum’s a big part of this game,” Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “We had it all going into the second half and in the second half.”
By the end of the contest, Duke was without 12 scholarship players, showing the depth it had been lacking. Cutcliffe pointed to the 2009 team, which won three consecutive ACC games before faltering because of injuries.
Duke was hardly brilliant. FIU outgained it by nearly 100 yards and had 50 fewer yards penalized. The turnover margin was even.
But the attitude was undeniably different, and Duke was good when it had to be, if only for a night.
“I’d rather lean toward a swagger than ducking your head,” Cutcliffe said. “Like I’ve said along, we’ve had good football teams. We’ve got to find the plays and the ways to win, and that’s what this team did (Saturday).
“But it’s one game.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com