For 43 seconds, it was the same old story.
When Florida International’s running back Kedrick Rhodes caught a dump pass from quarterback Jake Medlock, spun past his defender and found nothing but open field in front of him on the second play from scrimmage, it felt like the moment that has come in each of the last 17 seasons of Duke football—the “no bowl for you” shot to the solar plexus felt simultaneously by every player, coach and fan alike.
To have it come this early was no shock—last season’s opener began with the surprise unveiling of new all-black uniforms and ended in crushing defeat, as a missed 28-yard field goal doomed the Blue Devils against Richmond.
Duke did nothing to reinspire any confidence in its first offensive possession against the Golden Panthers, moving backwards on a sloppy three-and-out. But before even the aggressively fickle students could pack up and head to Main Street, the play on the field turned curiously unfamiliar.
It began when FIU cornerback Richard Leonard fumbled a punt and gave the Blue Devils another chance at an opening drive, and ended eight possessions and 44 points later—with 10 minutes left in the third quarter—when Duke eased off the gas and was up by 30.
“We never had a let down,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Any break or any opportunity we got we were able to take advantage of.”
The result? A complete and utter beatdown of a talented opponent. The 46-26 final score is as misleading as they get—the score was 44-14 with fewer than two minutes left.
Relative to the quality of their opposition, Saturday night was the best all-around game the Blue Devils have played under Cutcliffe, with the only possible exception being the team’s 31-3 shellacking of Virginia in 2008.
Duke held the Golden Panthers scoreless for almost 34 minutes before its reserves allowed a pair of touchdowns in the final 90 seconds. Meanwhile, the offense poured it on, scoring 24 points in just eight minutes.
Saturday’s win is distinctly unfamiliar territory for Duke, which dropped four games by seven points or fewer last season—each marked by its own missed field goal, dropped pass, blown assignment or key turnover.
It wasn’t all perfect. The Blue Devils gave up 513 total yards, including 245 all-purpose yards by Rhodes, missed an extra point—it was 15 yards longer than it should have been because of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty—and committed nine penalties. But 162 of Rhodes’ yards, the muffed point after attempt and seven of nine flags came in the first half as Duke shook off the cobwebs.
“There’s another level of execution and consistency,” Cutcliffe said. “If we take advantage of it we’ll have a good football team, and once you become a good football team then it’s about what you can do long term.”
Quantifying the season-long impact of Duke’s win is easy—it’s one-sixth of the way to bowl eligibility—but qualifying it is harder. The Golden Panthers received votes in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll, but lost games last season to Marshall and Western Kentucky. Plus, three of Florida International’s four biggest offensive threats from last season are now gone—Wesley Carroll and Darriet Perry to graduation, and T.Y. Hilton to the NFL.
But the Golden Panthers are not nearly as bad as Duke made them look. Its defense remains largely intact from the last year’s group that gave up 19.5 points per game, and Mario Cristobal is one of the hottest coaching names outside the BCS conferences.
In the end, though, it’s just one win in a 12-game season that’s about to ramp up quickly with a visit to Stanford. But one win can’t feel much bigger or carry more momentum than Saturday’s, and it’s starting to feel like that stomach punch just isn’t coming.