Duke could not have gotten off to a 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 much better, as the Blue Devils cruised to a 46-26 victory against the Golden Panthers (0-1) in their season opener as wide receiver Conner Vernon, a senior, broke Duke’s record for career receptions with a 10-catch, 180-yard night.
“We never had a letdown,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We weren’t perfect for 60 minutes, but we were into the game for 60 minutes and it amounted to this. What you saw was because we were prepared, and we were ready. Any break or any opportunity we got, we were able to take advantage of.”
After two disappointing minutes, Duke (1-0) caught the first of its breaks. Redshirt freshman punter Will Monday kicked a low line drive for the first punt of his career, but redshirt sophomore linebacker C.J. France forced a fumble on the return that long snapper Jackson Anderson recovered. The Blue Devils exploited the second chance, converting on a fourth down and finishing the drive with a two-yard touchdown run by redshirt sophomore Brandon Connette.
Florida International came back with a drive of its own, but Duke stuffed the Golden Panthers on consecutive running plays to take over possession. Just when Florida International appeared to recover momentum by picking off redshirt senior quarterback Sean Renfree, Duke linebacker Austin Gamble sniffed out a wide receiver reverse and forced a fumble, setting the Golden Panther offense back and forcing a 45-yard field goal attempt, which was subsequently shanked.
After a pair of nine-yard runs by redshirt sophomore running back Josh Snead, the Blue Devils ended the quarter on a 46-yard bomb from Renfree to Vernon. The sequence foreshadowed an explosive second quarter for Duke and an incredible offensive night for Vernon. Vernon racked up seven of his 10 catches and 115 of his 180 yards in the second and third quarters as his team put the game out of reach. Afterwards, Vernon said he was thrilled to surpass former teammate Donovan Varner’s career receptions mark, but noted that doing so in a winning performance made is what made the night.
“It would have been bittersweet if we hadn’t got the ‘W,’” Vernon said. “[Winning] just makes it that much better to have my name sit atop the all time receptions leaders in Duke history, just knowing how many great receivers have played at this University.”
In the second quarter, Duke blew the game open with a offensive outburst. On the first play of the quarter, Connette lined up behind Renfree, who finished the day 21-of-30 for 290 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. After Renfree went in motion out of the backfield, Connette faked a handoff and then hit redshirt freshman tight end David Reeves, who was wide open in the end zone.
Duke then committed a few of the mistakes that typified its failures over the past few years—an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for celebration and a muffed snap on the extra point attempt. But on Saturday night, leaving a point on the board and sacrificing field position were not enough to trip up the Blue Devils. After forcing a three-and-out on the next possession, Duke’s offense needed just three plays—including another long pass to Vernon—to cover 77 yards for another score, widening the lead to 20-7.
Although the Golden Panthers continued to rack up yards, the Blue Devils had momentum. When Florida International closed the gap to six, Duke responded with another quick touchdown drive, this time with sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder providing the downfield explosiveness. Crowder’s long touchdown catch highlighted a trend of deep pass success, as Renfree completed four passes of more than 25 yards.
“Jamison Crowder is a name you’re going to hear a lot this year,” Vernon said. “If any team tries to play man, there should be no way they’re going to get away with that.... What we did tonight just goes to show how good this offense really is.”
Despite all the big plays in the passing game, the biggest play of all came on special teams. With the first half winding down, the Golden Panthers launched a drive 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 fewer than two touchdowns and given Florida International momentum going into the half. Instead, Gamble made an athletic play to block the kick and co-captain and redshirt junior cornerback Ross Cockrell scooped up the ball, returning it 75 yards for a touchdown to give Duke a 37-14 lead at the half.
“It was huge—what a swing [in momentum],” Cutcliffe said. “Even though they took it down the field, even though we had that 15-yard penalty to help them start that drive, even though everything was negative, our team rose up. We played with more consistent intensity than we’ve played with here. But [when] you watch games and you see teams that win games, that kind of stuff starts happening.”