DURHAM -- According to the stat sheet, FIU had the edge on Duke Saturday night in Wallace Wade Stadium. The Panthers finished with more rushing yards, more passing yards, more first downs (29 to 16!), less penalties, a much better third-down conversion rate and were even in turnovers.
So how come the Blue Devils coasted to a lopsided 46-26 victory?
“I can’t honestly explain that,” junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said.
He has however seen that situation before. There have been a number of occasions over the last two years when Duke dominated the stat sheet only to find a way to lose. In this case, the Blue Devils made the winning plays.
“That’s something that coming into the season, we harped on – making the plays to win games,” Cockrell said. “A lot of times last year, we were one or two plays away from winning the game, especially in those close losses. To get over the hump, we talked about making those plays.”
Cockrell made one of the biggest. On the last play of the first half, FIU appeared poised to take some momentum into the locker room, Duke had scored with just 1:03 left in the second quarter to take a 30-14 lead. But a foolish penalty had negated a great kickoff by freshman Ross Martin and the Panthers had ripped down the field against Duke’s defense. With five seconds left before intermission, FIU kicker Jack Griffin lined up to attempt a 30-yard field goal.
But a funny thing happened – FIU mishandled the snap and Duke linebacker Austin Gamble blocked the low kick. The ball bounced to Cockrell, who picked it up on the bounce and took off behind a wall of blockers. There was no time left on the clock as he crossed the goal-line.
“As soon as I touched the ball, I was thinking touchdown – and apparently my teammates did too,” Cockrell said, acknowledging the blocking he got on his 75-yard return.
“That was huge,” senior wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “If they make that field goal, we go into the half up 30-17. To go in 37-14 is huge. Momentum is a big part of football and we had it all going into the second half.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe pointed out that Cockrell’s play started out with an FIU mistake – if Griffin, a senior placekicker with a great record, had been able to get the kick off normally, it’s hard to see him missing. But the slight bobble on the exchange gave the Blue Devils a sliver of an opportunity.
And, unlike some past Duke teams, these Devils were ready to take advantage of FIU’s mistake.
“What it amounted to was this – because we were prepared and ready, any break or any opportunity we got, we were able to take advantage of,” Cutcliffe said. “We did what we had to do to take a commanding lead in the game.”
He too saw the Cockrell play as a decisive moment in the game.
“What a swing,” he said. “Even though they had taken the ball down the field. Even though we had had that 15-yard penalty to help them start that drive. Even though everything was negative, our team rose up.
“Those kind of plays – why they happen sometimes is a mystery, but when you watch games and see teams that win games, that stuff keeps happening. You have to put yourself into position to make those plays.”
Cutcliffe cited another play – one that had less bearing on the outcome of the game, but also illustrated Duke’s opportunistic nature. It was after FIU finally scored in the second half, grinding out a long drive against a defense populated with youngsters as Cutcliffe cleared his bench (Duke used 61 players!). On the try for a two-point extra point, redshirt freshman Kyler Brown picked off Jake Medlock’s pass at the goal line and returned it 98 yards for two points for Duke.
“Kyler Brown’s play, that doesn’t just happen by accident,” the Duke coach said. “What was neat was to see those kids know exactly what to do. Dwayne Norman, a true freshman, recognized they had a speed guy [who was going to] run him down and he two or three times managed to be in his way and screen it. That’s what I noticed. How awesome was it that Dwayne Norman did that -- a sudden change and he went right to it. That’s a good sign of a natural football player.”
Vernon is a newly appointed captain and he saw the team’s performance as evidence of how far Duke has come since last year, when the Devils struggled to pull out a 31-27 victory at FIU.
“We knew how tough it was going to be,” he said. “They are almost the same team as last year, when they gave us all we could handle. We were pretty much the same team as last year too. We lost a few key guys, but we brought back a lot of guys who obviously got better over the summer.”
One of those who got better might be Vernon, who was already pretty good – second-team All-ACC at wide receiver for the last two seasons. His big night against FIU in the opener – 10 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown – added to some impressive career numbers. During the game, he passed former teammate Donovan Varner to become Duke’s all-time leader in career receptions. He climbed into fourth place for ACC receivers for receptions and into 11th place in ACC history for career receiving yardage.
Yet, Vernon said that his statistical achievement’s would have been “bittersweet” had they not come in a victory. And while he has a real chance to finish his career as the ACC’s all-time leading receiver – in terms of both receptions and receiving yardage – he’d much prefer to be part of a successful team.
“It’s real exciting to see what this team’s capable of doing,” he said after the FIU win. “We said all summer how good this team is and we showed that tonight.”
Duke comes out of the opener with the confidence and momentum that were missing a year ago when the Blue Devils debuted with a stunning homefield loss to Richmond.
“The difference is incredible,” junior linebacker August Campbell said, comparing the two games. “This win is just overwhelming.”
While this is Cutcliffe’s third opening-game victory in his five seasons at Duke, it’s his first against a FBS opponent – indeed, it’s Duke’s first opening win against an FBS foe since the 2003 team opened with a 23-16 victory over East Carolina. And considering the magnitude of the win over a quality opponent – FIU is the preseason favorite in the Sun Belt and got votes in the preseason top 25 – it probably ranks as Duke’s most impressive opening-game win since Fred Goldsmith’s first Blue Devil team debuted with a 49-16 victory over Maryland in 1994.
That win launched Duke’s last winning season and last bowl season. While it’s far too early to make that kind of projection for this team, the 2012 Blue Devils head to Stanford with a lot of confidence, even against a ranked opponent that won 44-14 in Durham a year ago.
“We go to Stanford now and last year, we felt we let them get away a little bit,” Campbell said.
Cutcliffe is just hoping that his players understand what happened against FIU. He’s had teams play better on offense and lose. He’s had teams play better on defense and lose.
What he’s had too rarely in the past was a Duke team that consistently made the winning play. That’s what he had against FIU.