DURHAM — The first play from scrimmage of 2012 could not have gone much better for Dukes defense. The Blue Devils swarmed Florida Internationals Kedrick Rhodes immediately after he caught quarterback Jake Medlocks pass, throwing him for a loss of three yards.
The second play from scrimmage of 2012 could not have gone much worse for Dukes defense.
Medlock barely avoided the Duke rush and again dumped the ball to Rhodes. This time, Rhodes had nothing but space ahead of him, and 67 yards later the Panthers had a seven-point lead a mere 42 seconds into Dukes season opener at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday.
We knew the crowd was thinking, Here we go again, said Blue Devils senior linebacker Austin Gamble.
But just when it looked as if Duke was positioning itself for another disappointing result against a program with little football pedigree, a funny thing happened over the final 59 minutes and 18 seconds. Shrugging off the early touchdown, Duke responded with an inspired second quarter that provided the impetus for an emphatic 46-26 win.
Its just really exciting to see what this team is capable of doing, said Conner Vernon, who had 10 receptions for 180 yards and one touchdown to pass Donovan Varner for Dukes all-time lead in receptions with 208. Vernon is also fourth on the ACCs all-time list.
The Blue Devils scored 30 points in the second quarter and 37 points before halftime.
The last time Duke scored 37 points or more in a half was Nov. 13, 1989, against Wake Forest, when the Blue Devils put up 41 against the Demon Deacons. The 30-point second quarter was Dukes fourth most prolific quarter in program history.
It seems like everythings going our way and things are just clicking. Sometimes it seems that were just cursed in that regard (that) we cant get a break, said Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, who completed 21 of 30 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
We got all the breaks tonight.
If there was one play that demonstrated what kind of night it was for the Blue Devils, it was the final play of the second quarter.
With Duke up 30-14, the Panthers drove down the field in relatively rapid fashion and was in position to kick a 30-yard field goal with 5 seconds left in the half. If the kick was good, the Blue Devils would still head to the locker room with momentum, but the outcome was far from certain.
FIU botched the snap, however, allowing Duke to block the field-goal attempt. Ross Cockrell picked up the loose ball and danced around for a second or two to collect blockers.
As he crossed midfield, Cockrell accelerated forward, before darting to his right. With no Panthers players in front of him, Cockrell eased up as he crossed the goalline on a 75-yard touchdown run that gave Duke a 37-14 halftime lead.
It was only the second time in Duke program history that a Blue Devils player returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown.
As soon as I touched the ball, I thought touchdown, Cockrell said.
Brandon Connette had one touchdown pass and one touchdown run for the Blue Devils while Josh Snead had a 19-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter.
Duke had 308 yards of total offense in the first half against a defense that returned 10 starters off of the past years unit that finished 16th in the NCAA in points allowed. Largely because of that defense, FIU was picked to win the Sun Belt Conference this season.
While Cockrells touchdown showed just what kind of night it was for the Blue Devils, the turning point came shortly after FIU scored on the games second play, when it still looked like the game might get away from Duke.
After the Blue Devils went three and out on their first possession, the Blue Devils steadied themselves when FIU punt returner Richard Leonard fumbled Will Mondays punt. Duke recovered the fumbled and scored six plays later when Connette pushed his way into the end zone from two yards out.
I think our defense did a phenomenal job of not only stopping them but getting turnovers, Renfree said. Any time you can get turnovers with a short field, it makes it that much easier.
Connettes score tied the score at seven heading into Dukes explosive second quarter.
Connette got things started with an eight-yard touchdown pass to David Reeves before Snead sprinted into the end zone from 19 yards out. Jamison Crowder also had a 60-yard touchdown reception.
Vernon had a 28-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to add to Dukes lead.
It would have been bittersweet if we wouldnt have got the W, Vernon said about his record. The fact we got the win with it just makes it that much better.