DURHAM – Two plays and 43 seconds into its home opener, Duke found itself losing, 7-0.
Same old Duke? Not quite.
The Blue Devils erupted for 30 points in the second quarter, setting themselves up for an easy-going 46-20 victory against Florida International on Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“We weren't perfect for 60 minutes, but we were into the game for 60 minutes,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “What it amounted to was this: … Any break we got, we took advantage of.”
Duke (1-0) beat a Football Bowl Division opponent in its opening game for the first time since 2002, and snapped a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season.
The Blue Devils scored 14 points off turnovers in the first half, and made a game-changing play on special teams. Duke linebacker Austin Gamble blocked FIU's 30-yard field goal on the last play of the first half, and cornerback Ross Cockrell scooped it and ran 75 yards for a score to give the Blue Devils a 37-14 lead at halftime.
“As soon as I touched the ball, I thought touchdown,” Cockrell said. “My teammates apparently did, too. So that was great.”
The play was a 10-point swing: Instead of trailing 30-17, as the Golden Panthers (0-1) would have if the field goal were good, they went into the break trailing, 37-14.
“It was a momentum shift. We really needed that,” Duke safety August Campbell said. “It was just the break the team needed. We knew we were going to dominate after that.”
Duke receiver Conner Vernon's campaign to surpass the ACC all-time receptions and yards records started with an excellent game against the Golden Panthers. Vernon had 10 catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns, and became Duke's all-time leader in receptions with 208 catches.
“(It's) pretty phenomenal somebody can play that long, stay healthy and be that productive throughout an entire career,” Duke quarterback Sean Renfree said. “It says a lot about Conner.”
Vernon now needs 25 receptions and 663 yards to become the all-time ACC leader in both categories.
After FIU quarterback Jake Medlock threw a 67-yard touchdown to Kendrick Rhodes on the Panthers's second play from scrimmage, Duke controlled the contest.
Backup quarterback Brandon Connette, whom Duke uses in mostly running sets, ran for one touchdown and threw for another in the second quarter.
Connette proved a nice complement to Renfree, who finished 21-for-30 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
The Blue Devils were not spectacular running the football – 30 carries for 119 yards – but were effective enough to keep FIU from keying on the pass with all its resources.
Duke is not coy about its desire to win games through the air, but Renfree said running the ball at even an acceptable clip is crucial.
“It's night and day in terms of what you can do,” he said. “It makes things much better, that's why we were able to get the ball down field and take deep shots. When you run it effectively, they can't sit back and tee off in the pass rush.”
The Blue Devils completed a 9-play, 74-yard drive finished by a 28-yard Renfree-to-Vernon connection on the opening drive of the second half, and Duke's rout of FIU was sealed.
Duke travels to Palo Alto, Calif., in a Week 2 showdown with No. 21 Stanford next Saturday. The Cardinal defeated the Blue Devils, 44-14, last season in Durham.
“It's real exciting to see how good this team's gonna be,” Vernon said. “We said it all summer, how good this team really is, and I think we showed it out there (Saturday.)”