DURHAM Same old Duke.
Second play of the game, defense falls apart, Florida International turns a short pass into a 67-yard touchdown.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, kids were playing in the aisles at Wallace Wade Stadium and the parking lots were emptying. It was just another Duke football game that turned into a rout.
Same old Duke.
The Blue Devils loved every second of it on their way to a 46-26 win. That first breakdown was a mere blip in an evening of complete Duke dominance.
The Blue Devils ran the ball effectively, played solid defense, got the Sean Renfree-to-Conner Vernon connection humming and cranked up the Brandon Connette Touchdown Machine for a pair of scores.
Florida International showed flashes of the speed and athleticism that so concerned Dukes coaches while preparing for the game prompting Duke coach David Cutcliffe to call Florida International the ACCs toughest opening-game opponent earlier this week, never mind Tennessee and Auburn but the Blue Devils limited the Panthers to those flashes while creating a lightning storm of their own.
Renfree and Vernon combined for 177 yards and a touchdown Vernon caught a 10th pass, from Anthony Boone, to set the school record for career receptions and backup QB/TE/WR Connette ran for one goal-line touchdown and threw for another. They not only blocked a field goal and ran it back for a touchdown, they intercepted a two-point conversion and ran that back for a safety.
It goes without saying that the kind of early misfortune the Blue Devils suffered Saturday night might once have knocked them out of the game, mentally speaking. It was a real body blow, especially to begin a season. Yet Duke never really wavered. The Blue Devils answered, and scored again and again, and just kept going.
As other ACC teams either struggled with lesser opponents Maryland against William & Mary, Wake Forest against Liberty or otherwise severely disappointed their fan base (pointing the finger at N.C. State.) The Blue Devils exceeded all expectations for their opener, except perhaps their own.
With a brutally difficult closing run to finish the season, the Blue Devils have little margin for error at the start. They needed this game badly, for their ambitions as well as their attitude. Its hard to imagine the night going much better.
Injured wide receiver Blair Holliday even made a cameo appearance, and not just with his No. 8 on his teammates helmets. He delivered a surprise, videotaped message on the scoreboard after the first quarter, a public reminder of both his progress and the long road he still faces toward recovery.
Hollidays absence surrounds this team like an aura, something that isnt consciously thought about but never quite goes away completely. His teammates delivered an inspired performance that honored Hollidays own, more serious fight.
No less inspired was Jamison Crowder, whose watercraft collided with Hollidays on July 4 in the tragic accident that had Holliday hospitalized until this week, when he moved to an outpatient rehabilitation facility in Atlanta. Crowder was only slightly less dangerous than Vernon, finishing with six catches for 102 yards and a touchdown.
The first half ended with the blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, a 10-point swing. Same old Duke, except the Blue Devils were on the right end of it this time. Then, and all night long.