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Are Blue Devils the real deal?

I told myself I wouldn't do this. I promised that this column would be a football-free space this year.

But a funny thing happened when Duke beat Northwestern last weekend: I couldn't help but care again. I couldn't help but believe that Ted Roof's football program had finally emerged from its decade of misery. After seeing the on-campus celebration break out over a win that had occurred 800 miles away (without a local television broadcast available), I couldn't help but think that there would be more days like that to come.

For several hours this Saturday, it looked like the Blue Devils were going to do it again, against an opponent whose triple-option offense had befuddled Roof's team in each of the past three years. There the Blue Devils were in Annapolis, Md., up 11 points at halftime and by the same margin with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, even after missing a 31-yard field goal and fumbling the ball inside the 25-yard line on two second-half drives.

After watching another heartbreaker Saturday, however, the Blue Devils have left me questioning whether the losing-streak-ending victory over the Wildcats was an exhilarating tease or the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the win column.

Let's take a look first at argument A: that the win over Northwestern is evidence that the football program has finally turned the corner under Roof, notwithstanding the 58-7 thumping the Wildcats took from Ohio State this weekend.

There's no doubt from watching the team that there's a demonstrably higher level of talent on the field this year. Thaddeus Lewis is destined to be (if he isn't already) a star quarterback in the ACC. He showed spurts last year, like in his breakout performance that nearly drove Duke to victory over eventual ACC-champion Wake Forest, but the jury was still out on whether he could produce consistently at this level. There's no doubt now that he can.

Lewis has plenty of help, too. Roof and Co. took heat last year for committing to such an inexperienced offensive line, but with more than a year of playing together under its belt, the group appears to be rounding into shape. On the outside, Eron Riley is emerging as a top-flight, big-play receiver (as evidenced by his 235 yards and four touchdowns on six catches against Navy), and Jomar Wright and Raphael Chestnut round out a very capable receiving corps. On the defensive side, Vince Oghobaase and Ayanga Okpokowuruk are finally coming into their own, and Michael Tauiliili and Vincent Rey are formidable forces at linebacker.

Ever since Roof took over, we've heard that the talent level was improving and that we'd see it in years four and five of his tenure. It's year four, and it's obvious that the Blue Devils have better players-and therefore a better chance of winning games that aren't against VMI or The Citadel.

In four games this year, Duke has been competitive for seven of the eight halves, and the Blue Devils have put themselves in positions to win games against two respectable Division I-A programs.

There has undoubtedly been progress.

Then there's argument B: that even in the win over Northwestern, and especially down the stretch against Navy, Duke football still looked like the same Duke football that has lost 34 of 38 times since Roof took over full time as head coach.

First, it should be acknowledged that the Blue Devils got absolutely hosed by the referees during the fourth quarter of the Navy game. Of the two holds called on Duke's final offensive drive, one was questionable and the other (the one on Eron Riley that caused the officials to negate a Blue Devils touchdown) was downright wrong.

That aside, there were still signs that this was the same old Duke. Whether it's been bad refereeing, ill-timed penalties, poor kicking or overly-conservative play calling in the second half, the Blue Devils have found ways to lose over the past few years under Roof. Each game there seems to be a reasonable explanation for the loss-and to Roof's credit, he never makes excuses-but the collective profile of Duke's defeats indicates a troubling trend.

The Blue Devils needed a gritty goal-line stand to escape Northwestern, but the demons were apparent even in that game, as Duke almost gave away a two-score second-half lead. Those same demons have been there all year, as Duke squandered chances to keep within striking distance of Virginia and then blew a game it had controlled from the opening kickoff against Navy. These were the same demons that haunted Duke against Wake Forest, Miami and North Carolina in 2006.

Four games into the 2007 season, it remains to be seen whether argument A or B will prove to be correct in the long run. But the bottom line is, while there are plenty of positive signs about the football program's future, there are still doubts surrounding a team whose leadership seems to find ways to lose against beatable opponents.


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