DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University senior wide receiver Conner Vernon became the Blue Devils’ all-time leader in career receptions with 10 catches for 180 yards and a touchdown to lead the Blue Devils to a 46-26 victory over Florida International in front of 31,117 fans at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night. Duke outscored the Panthers 30-7 in the second quarter to cruise to the 20-point, season-opening victory.
Vernon’s 10 catches put the Miami, Fla., native atop the Duke career receptions list and fourth in ACC history with 208. He has recorded 10-plus receptions in four career games, matching the Duke record held by Roger Boone, and holds the Blue Devil career mark for five or more catches in a game with 24.
Duke’s 44 points are the most in a season opener since the Blue Devils tallied 49 versus Maryland in 1994, while the 37 points in the first half and 30 points in the second quarter were the most since Duke had 41 and 34, respectively, against Wake Forest in 1999.
Walt Canty and Austin Gamble headlined the Blue Devils’ defensive effort with 11 tackles. The 11 tackles are a career-high for Gamble as he added a tackle for loss and a blocked field goal to his name, while Brandon Braxton picked up 10 tackles, including a team-high seven solo stops, in his first career game on the defensive side of the ball.
After an even 7-7 first quarter, it was all Blue Devils in the second session as they amassed 192 total yards, including 142 yards through the air. The Duke defense was outstanding after allowing a 67-yard touchdown run to the Panthers to start the game. Duke forced two turnovers and blocked a field goal in the second 15 minutes.
The Blue Devils finished the first quarter with a bang as Renfree connected with Vernon on a 46-yard strike to put Duke in the red zone as time expired. Connette got the call on the first play of the second frame and found David Reeves in the end zone for his first career touchdown pass and a 13-7 Duke lead.
Duke forced the Panthers into another three-and-out to take over possession on its own 23-yard line. Nearly identical to the end of the first quarter, Renfree found Vernon on a 49-yard bomb to the FIU 28. The veteran signal caller hit receiver Corey Gattis for nine yards to the FIU 19 to set up a Josh Snead 19-yard dash into the end zone and a 20-7 Duke advantage.
The Panthers’ scoring drought ended late in the quarter as FIU tailback Darian Mallary rushed for 10 yards to cut the lead to six, 20-14. Running back Kedrick Rhodes keyed the Panthers’ 80-yard scoring drive with 49 rushing yards.
The final five minutes of the quarter were all Duke. The Blue Devils scored on three possessions, sandwiching a field goal between a pair of touchdowns. Duke’s passing game continued to flourish as Renfree threw his first touchdown pass of the evening on a 60-yard completion to receiver Jamison Crowder. The 60-yard toss was Renfree’s fourth career completion of 60-plus yards.
Duke saved perhaps the most exciting play for last as cornerback Ross Cockrell placed himself in the Duke record books with the longest blocked field goal return for a touchdown in Duke history. The Panthers set up for a 30-yard field goal attempt with five ticks remaining in the half, but linebacker Austin Gamble came through to block the attempt. Cockrell picked up the loose ball and behind his blockers, raced 75 yards down the field for the touchdown and 37-14 halftime lead.
The Blue Devils added one touchdown, a 28-yard fourth-down pass from Renfree to Vernon, in the third quarter to stretch the lead to 44-14. FIU added two touchdowns in the final 1:19, but failed to convert on either point after attempt. Linebacker Kyler Brown picked off the first FIU two-point conversion pass attempt and returned it 98 yards to bring Duke’s final tally to 46, while the Panthers’ second attempt fell incomplete.
Rhodes finished the evening with 130 yards on 25 carries and also caught seven passes for 115 yards. FIU quarterback Jake Medlock completed 27-of-45 passes for 348 yards and two touchdowns with receiver Wayne Times hauling in eight receptions for 101 yards.
Duke heads west for its next contest, taking on Stanford, Sept. 8 at 10:30 p.m. (ET).