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How good is Duke? Only future games will provide answer

A win is a win.

When it comes to games like Saturday's football season opener against Western Carolina, though, that's about all you can say. Fans who headed to Wallace Wade Stadium to see Duke soundly defeat a Division I-AA opponent got what they came for. Those who came hoping to see just how good the Blue Devils will be this year, however, may have been disappointed.

Duke didn't display a great number of flashy plays. It didn't actually show much variation in its offensive game at all; at halftime, only tailback B.J. Hill had positive rushing yardage (75) for Duke. The most daring call made in the game was an early fourth-and-goal situation from the one-yard line-far from a nail-biter.

The question is, though, did it need to be flashy? After the first quarter, Duke's victory was never really in doubt. There was no point in giving future opponents an advantage by displaying anything more than was needed to secure the win.

Did observers see a team giving everything it had, or did they see a team holding back, saving trick plays and variation for later in the season? Quarterback Spencer Romine believes that the latter is true.

"We've still got a lot of stuff we didn't show," he said. "That tells me that we've got a ways to improve, and we've got things out there that we're not showing anybody yet. We can be a lot better offensively when we start breaking some of the stuff out."

It would be a mistake to use this rationale to make excuses for any exhibited poor play; on defense, a strong first half gave way to some apparent holes in the second half. Offensively, the passing game was fairly inconsistent: Romine was at times not given enough time to throw the ball, some passes were far from their intended targets and some passes that should have been caught were dropped. Even a conservative Duke had no reason to allow these transgressions.

Despite all this, the feeling remained that this game was not an exhibition of Duke at its best or most excited. When Western Carolina poured onto the field, the players ran, jumped, and pumped their fists. When the Blue Devils emerged from the giant inflatable football helmet, they ran, but their enthusiasm was not quite as evident.

While Duke dominated the scoreboard, any individual strengths and weaknesses observed need to be taken in context: these were what the Blue Devils displayed against a Division I-AA team, and the same standards will not apply next week when they take on Northwestern, or at any point in the ACC season.

"We've got to be better than what we were," Goldsmith said. "We've got a lot of corrections to make in a hurry."

It is how Duke manages those corrections, not its play on Saturday, that will indicate the Blue Devils' success in the coming season.

For now, enjoy the win. Revel in the fact that, for the first time since 1994, Duke football has a better record than does its neighbor down 15-501. Remember, though, that what everyone saw on the field Saturday night might not have been any indication of the plays or intensity Duke will display for the rest of the season.

The Blue Devils may find competition from traditionally strong opponents to be a large barrier to overcome. On the other hand, Duke may unleash as-yet-unseen elements in its future games. Either way, it is happy with the benefits of being 1-0.

"Any win builds confidence," Hill said.

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