Duke Coach Red Wilson could see his Blue Devils' heads bulging from under their helmets and he suggested it was rather early in the season to get so giddy.

But the Blue Devils were hardly in a mood for caution. After all, they had overcome Tennessee before 95,000 fans in Knoxville to win the season opener, then defeated South Carolina before the biggest football crowd in the history of that state.

The Devils soared to 3-0 the next week by routing Virginia, and people in Durham, N.C., were talking of major bowl bids and an Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Quarterback Ben Bennett was leading the nation in this and that and it was a foregone conclusion that the Devils would be ranked in the nation's top 20 -- maybe the top 10 -- after their next victory.

The problem is, the Blue Devils haven't won since. Duke, called the most improved team in the ACC a few weeks ago, is 3-3 and trying to regain respectability, according to Wilson.

It doesn't help Wilson's mood that his team has to face Maryland Saturday at Byrd Stadium, with the Terrapins having won four straight.

"I tried to tell people not to get so excited until at least half the season was over," Wilson said yesterday by telephone. "I told them three games wasn't a fair evaluation, to please wait. But everybody said good things, too many good things.

"And our players were busy reading all of their clippings. They got too high the week before the Navy game. The kids thought we'd just walk out there and Navy would fall dead. The Virginia Tech game was demoralizing. And Clemson just plain kicked our tails."

In preparing for Navy, the Blue Devils watched films of the Midshipmen edging Virginia, a team Duke beat, 51-17. Duke fell behind Navy, 27-0, but pulled within 27-21 and was threatening to win the game when Bennett fumbled away the ball inside the 10-yard line.

The next game was even stranger. The Blue Devils took a three-touchdown lead over Virginia Tech, and still led, 21-7, in the third quarter when another apparent touchdown drive ended in a lost fumble at the one.

Then, with 33 seconds left and Tech trailing by seven, the Hokies tried a desperation pass from midfield. Two Duke defenders were ready to intercept the ball, but they collided, permitting the Tech receiver to score on a 49-yard play. Virginia Tech won, 22-21, on the subsequent two-point conversion.

"It's the darndest thing I've ever experienced in 30-some years of coaching," Wilson said, reliving the game. "Never have I seen so many wild things in one game."

The Duke offense still ranks high, the fifth most productive in the country. Bennett, who has completed 65 percent of his passes, is third in passing and ninth in total offense.

When things were going well, Duke billed itself as "The Best Team East of the Rockies." But Red Wilson has had enough of that kind of slogan.