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FIU Golden Panthers crushed by Duke in opener

In FIU’s season opening 46-26 loss at Duke, the question mark had most of the answers and the safe bets turned out to be unsafe at any speed.

It seemed the only uncertainty about FIU’s going into the season opener at Duke concerned sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock. As it turned out, the kid was all right.

But FIU’s dependable old men of the D? Their special teams that rated solid, it not as spectacular as in the past? Calamitous, especially during a second quarter that saw the game go from 7-7 to 37-14, Duke.

By halftime, the senior-packed defense expected to be the bedrock of FIU success felt the burns from allowing 308 total yards, 30 points and 5.0 yards per rush to a team that hadn’t run the ball well in almost a decade.

Smarting from the first half, they came out for the second half and allowed Duke to drive 74 yards to a touchdown, wide receiver Conner Vernon grabbing a short pass over the middle, whirling and racing through tackles to a 28-yard touchdown.

Just as during last year’s Duke win over FIU, two Blue Devils wide receivers raced through FIU’s secondary for over 100 yards worth of receptions. Vernon caught 10 passes for 180 yards and sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder caught six for 102, including the 60-yard touchdown that put Duke up 27-14.

“We’ve got to put this behind us and take it as a wakeup call,” FIU senior safety Johnathan Cyprien said.

Duke’s other seven first half points came from Ross Cockrell’s 75-yard return of a blocked field goal on the half’s final play. Medlock had completed four passes, three of them for 55 yards to senior wide receiver Wayne Times on a furious 54-second drive from the FIU 23 to the Duke 13.

“The snap was high. By the time the holder got it down, there was some leakage. That was a big time swing right there,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “We’re trying to cut that thing down. We’re trying to get 17 points on the board. Instead, it goes seven the other way. That’s a 10-point swing there.”

Another high snap from Shae Smith, replacing last year’s long snapper Mitch McCluggage, led to a partial block of a 45-yard field goal attempt in the first quarter with the game tied 7-7. That first Duke score followed sophomore Richard Leonard fumbling the Blue Devils’ first punt of the game.

During the competitive phase of the game, the first half, Medlock went 14 of 17 for 185 yards and a 67-yard touchdown to junior running back Kedrick Rhodes. He finished 27 of 45 for 348 yards and threw for one of FIU’s two scores in the game’s last two minutes. He also ran for 19 yards, sliding each time instead of taking on tacklers as he did last year.

The touchdown started an impressive statistical night for Rhodes, who ran for 130 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown and caught 7 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown.

“Throughout the game, our offense was clicking, we just didn’t finish our drives,” Rhodes said.

Two fumbles, one of them lost, and a fourth and 2 failure from the Duke 5 in the first quarter stalled FIU’s offense. Duke turned the fumble, by senior wide receiver Jacob Younger, into a field goal and a 30-14 lead.

That’s not the way things started for FIU. On the second play from scrimmage, Medlock wrested away from Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike to hit Rhodes over the middle. Rhodes turned to find masses of green and used two good blocks to race to a 67-yard touchdown.

Following a stop on the first Duke possession, Leonard fumbled the punt. Duke’s Brandon Connette, a tight end who plays quarterback in short yardage and red zone situations, converted a fourth and 2 before bulling for a 2-yard touchdown that tied the game.

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