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Blue Devils are better than 1-4 record indicates

For most college football coaches, winning is their paramount concern, no matter how the result is achieved. Ted Roof says he subscribes to the same attitude, even though his teams have been losing quite a bit.

"We're not into the moral victory thing," he told me before the loss two weekends ago to Virginia.

But after being in attendance for all five games so far this year, I think Roof would be misguided to look at the first half of the season and only see the team's disappointing record. Though the 1-4 start would suggest a complete failure, the team has actually played pretty well and is just a handful of plays away from being successful.

You might think I'm being a little optimistic, but there are some surprising statistics to support my theory. On the year, Duke actually has more first downs than its opponents by a count of 76 to 75. And that includes losing the first-down battle by 17 to Virginia Tech Sept. 10 in a game when Duke only advanced the ball into opposing territory once.

Against then-No. 23 Virginia, Duke had 19 first downs to just 11 for the Cavaliers. Last Saturday against Navy, the Blue Devils had 20 and the Midshipmen only 13.

The Blue Devils are also winning the time-of-possession and penalty battles. Duke has controlled the ball for an average of 32:52 per game has committed five fewer penalties per contest than its opponents.

For the most part, the team isn't playing careless football-it's playing well on most plays. Unfortunately, most plays isn't enough to win Division I-A football games.

It's the big play, or "X-play" as Roof calls it, which has been killing Duke-the Blue Devils have given up too many on defense and produced too few on offense.

Against East Carolina, the Blue Devils struggled on third-and-long situations, allowing the Pirates to accumulate huge gains at times when it looked like Duke would be getting the ball back.

Faced with a third-and-seven from the 50-yard line late in the first half, the Pirates connected for a devastating touchdown. The Blue Devils mounted a late comeback, but they never really recovered.

Three weeks later in Charlottesville, Va., Duke's defense allowed the Cavaliers to turn a third-and-24 situation into a 46-yard scoring strike. At the time the Blue Devil deficit was just ten, but four Virginia plays later the score was 31-0. What once seemed to me like a gritty effort by Duke soon turned into a game with an embarrassing final score.

The same thing happened in Duke's most recent game. The Blue Devils defense allowed second-half rushes of 47 and 52 yards to Navy. The first scored a touchdown and the second led to the game-winning score.

"That was the biggest factor in the football game," Roof said Monday of the game-breaking plays. "If somebody told me we'd have won the turnover battle, won the penalty battle and possessed the ball for 39 minutes and two seconds and lost, I wouldn't have seen that one coming."

The big defensive lapses in those three games spelled part of Duke's demise, but the losses also could have been prevented with more explosive plays on offense. Roof and offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien have been conservative in their play calling in an attempt to limit third-and-long situations. But the lack of ingenuity has limited the opportunity for a quick scoring strike. Duke's longest play from scrimmage against a Division I-A opponent this year is a 30-yard completion from Zack Asack to Jomar Wright. And Wright probably isn't even going to play again this year.

It's unreasonable to expect Duke's defense to contain all game-breaking plays, but to beat legitimate college football teams-and I'm not counting VMI in there-you can't lose focus even for a moment.

Roof has said repeatedly that there is no magical fix to the problem. On defense the problem seems to be depth. With a couple more recruiting classes like last year's-and all indications so far point to another strong one this year-Duke will finally have the depth to contain those big plays.

On offense, I think the answer involves more risky play calling by Duke. If you're going to lose, you might as well do it fighting. It's nice to leave Duke's quarterbacks with shorter distances on third down by running the ball on the first two, but given the results so far I think it's time for a change. Taking a couple more home-run shots each game could excite the team and the fans, maybe net a touchdown-and who knows, even win a game.

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