Duke, during the preseason, was the general consensus to be the Atlantic Coast Conference football patsy. Having finished last among eight teams in rushing offense, rushing defense and total defense, and in last place with a 2-9 record in 1980, that distinction seemed justified.

But more than halfway through this season, the Blue Devils are 3-3 (1-1 in the ACC) and rank in the middle of the conference in almost every team statistic.

Duke lost its first two games, to Ohio State and South Carolina, but then won three straight for the first time since 1977, before losing last week to Clemson, now ranked fourth in the nation. One of Duke's victories was over then-undefeated Virginia Tech.

The Blue Devils, like most long-suffering teams, found that passing the ball 40 times per game was the quickest way to reach respectability. Duke senior receiver Cedrick Jones already has caught 27 passes for 515 yards and six touchdowns.

But an even more important improvement at Duke this season has been a defense that is allowing five points fewer per game than it did last year.

"We were improving defensively every week," said Duke Coach Red Wilson.

Until last week, when four of Wilson's defensive starters were injured. Five injured defensive starters will miss Saturday's 1:30 game at Maryland.

"We'll be very restricted on defense," Wilson said yesterday from Durham, N.C. "We'll have to muster up something to make it interesting."

ACC coaches are known for their ability to downplay their teams, but Wilson's concern is genuine. All five of the injured players are seniors. Cornerback Dennis Tabron has a pulled hamstring, nose guard Dan Yellot has a broken jaw, defensive tackle F.A. Martin and cornerback Keith Crenshaw have severely sprained ankles, and defensive end Larry LeNoir has a sprained knee. LeNoir hurt himself two weeks ago, against Virginia Tech.

Three sophomores, a freshman and a junior -- none with much experience -- will start in their places.

Duke's defensive injuries will be offset, somewhat, by injuries to four Maryland running backs: Charlie Wysocki (bruised shoulder), Willie Joyner (hamstring and groin), Jeff Rodenberger (knee) and John Nash (knee).

Duke quarterback Ben Bennett, who suffered a separated right shoulder earlier this season, is expected to start. He has very good receivers in Jones -- the schools' all-time leading receiver with 17 touchdown receptions -- and Ron Fredrick, who has caught 22 passes for 347 yards.

With Maryland's defense allowing an average of 361 yards per game passing, Bennett may have a chance to regain his conference records, which were broken when Wake Forest's Gary Schofield completed 43 passes against Maryland for 504 yards.