Luke DeCock

Early season mantra: First, do no harm

Johnell Barnes (4) of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tulane Green Wave at Yulman Stadium last week in New Orleans.
Johnell Barnes (4) of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Tulane Green Wave at Yulman Stadium last week in New Orleans. Getty Images

If Duke and N.C. State are going to exceed outside expectations and overachieve this season, there wasn’t much on the field in their openers that offered definitive evidence that they’re capable, not under these circumstances.

Perhaps more important, there was no evidence that they’re likely to underachieve, having taken care of business to start the season.

That’s the rule of Week 1: First, do no harm.

“Oftentimes more games are lost than they are won,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I’m not talking about conservatism. I’m talking about attention to detail, doing every little thing well to avoid getting yourself beat. Everybody thinks that when you see an FBS team playing an FCS team, it’s going to be different, but it’s the same. It’s going to hold true. And this one’s unique, because of the uniqueness of the rivalry.”

Tulane and Troy may not have been the most dramatic opponents, but both Duke and N.C. State avoided early disaster. You can’t always do a lot to help yourself at this point in the season, against teams you’re expected to beat. You can do a lot to hurt yourself.

All of this will hold true Saturday as well against a pair of FCS opponents, as N.C. Central crosses town to play Duke and N.C. State hosts Eastern Kentucky, before things get tougher for Duke against Northwestern in Week 3 and for N.C. State against Louisville in Week 5 – the first power-five conference opposition for both teams.

“I think it’s a matter of focus,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “We spend a lot of time talking about not beating ourselves. That’s one of the No. 1 things we talk about, week in and week out. Our keys to victory are usually going to be about penalties and mental errors, things we can control.”

North Carolina is in a slightly different position, having suffered enough self-inflicted damage to lose a winnable game against South Carolina, a considerably stronger opponent. The Tar Heels also have a chance to regroup this week against North Carolina A&T, but they’re 0-1, unlike their rivals.

The Blue Devils faced a sneaky degree of difficulty going on the road to beat Tulane. The Green Wave may not be the most frightening opponent, but Duke had a first-time starter at quarterback, injury issues up and down the roster and many contributors traveling for the first time, which made the 37-7 win far from a certainty.

N.C. State will want to examine the big plays it allowed on defense – 190 of Troy’s 305 yards came on five plays – but there was plenty to like about the way the offense played and the defense played otherwise, not to mention an error-free game by a very young and inexperienced special-teams unit.

This was to be expected, considering the Wolfpack’s degree of continuity from a year ago, particularly with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, and especially with Troy playing its first game under a new coaching staff, but there’s a sense of relief in meeting those expectations in the 49-21 win.

“When you talk about not turning the ball over, not taking penalties, not beating yourself, those are the things you look for,” Doeren said.

Can Duke continue its streak of bowl appearances and contend for the Coastal Division title? Can N.C. State win nine or 10 games and make an underdog run in the Atlantic?

Nothing that happened last week indicated that either team could, but there was nothing that said they couldn’t. First, do no harm. That’s the best-case scenario for both teams this weekend again.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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