An Awakening At Wake Forest

Sorry, Rutgers. The biggest surprise came from the Demon Deacons, who won their first ACC title since 1970 after being picked to finish last
December 25, 2006

One day in earlyDecember, the main quad at Wake Forest was buried under a blizzard of toiletpaper, the morning-after remnants of a giddy celebration of the Demon Deacons'first ACC championship in 36 years. Under other circumstances the long strandsof white dangling from the trees might have suggested vandalism, but those whowere there will tell you that they looked soft and lovely, like a gentlesnowfall. In that way the scene was the perfect symbol of Wake Forest's season,a thing of quiet beauty. ¶ Other teams commanded more attention in 2006.

Ohio State andMichigan turned back all comers, on their way toward a No. 1 versus No. 2confrontation that turned out to be a classic. Rutgers's remarkable rise was anoisy, Jersey thing that made a star of the Scarlet Knights' young coach, GregSchiano. In Wake's conference, the ACC, Miami made headlines with thuggery (anugly brawl with Florida International) and tragedy (the murder of defensive endBryan Pata). At no point in the season were the Demon Deacons at the center ofthe college football discussion. "Every week it seemed like people weretalking about the BCS, or the SEC, or Ohio State--Michigan," sayslinebacker Jon Abbate, Wake's co-captain and defensive leader. "And then itwould be like, 'By the way, Wake Forest won again.' That was fine withus."

Wake Forestdidn't have a Heisman Trophy candidate or a big-name coach on the sideline. Thegame that won the Demon Deacons the ACC championship was a taut butunspectacular 9--6 victory over Georgia Tech. Their key player that day mighthave been their kicker-punter, Sam Swank. Yet here is Wake, having sneaked uplike an overnight snowfall, suddenly 11--2 and ranked 15th in the country.College football offered no better story in 2006 than the Demon Deacons'unexpected transformation, which has them headed to their first Orange Bowl,against No. 5 Louisville, only the seventh bowl game in the 105-year history ofthe program. Their emergence is proof that the sport doesn't belong solely tothe football factories; that a small, private university (Rice and Tulsa arethe only Division I-A schools with fewer students than Wake's 4,321undergraduates) can make a major national impact.

At the beginningof the year there was no reason to suspect that Wake students would make aJanuary trip to Miami for anything other than a between-semesters vacation. TheDeacons were picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division, which wasn'tsurprising, since they'd never won more than eight games in a season, and noone was particularly impressed that 18 starters were returning to a team comingoff consecutive 4--7 finishes. Achieving the program's first winning seasonsince 2002 would have seemed miraculous. More than that was pure fantasy.

Fantasizing aboutWake Forest football has always been rare, even on and around the school'scampus in Winston-Salem, N.C. Wake operates in the orbit--some would say theshadow--of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, and the DemonDeacons' fan base has never been especially large or passionate. Folks inWinston-Salem are just as likely to root for one of the three Tobacco Roadschools as they are for the one in their own backyard. Former Wake basketballcoach Dave Odom wasn't far off when he said that in the state of NorthCarolina, Wake Forest is everyone's second-favorite team.

Despite Wake'syears of being an ACC doormat--before this season the Deacons hadn't finishedabove .500 in conference play in 18 years--there was no hotshot young coachbrought in to stir the hearts and minds of the local populace. Wake stuck withJim Grobe, a 54-year-old grandfather who had been 26--32 in his previous fiveseasons with the Demon Deacons and 33-33-1 at Ohio University before that. Butthose numbers say nothing about Grobe's philosophy of redshirting almost everyfreshman in order to field a team heavy with fourth- and fifth-year players, orthe bond he had with his team. "When he talks to us, it's not so much likea coach who's demanding something from us," says safety Patrick Ghee."It's more like a father who loves us."

The Deaconsneeded all the togetherness they could muster after they suffered twodevastating injuries--quarterback Ben Mauk's season ended in the opening gameagainst Syracuse when he broke his right arm and dislocated his shoulder, andMicah Andrews, their top running back, went down for the season with a kneeinjury two weeks later against Connecticut. Suddenly the two players aroundwhom the Deacons had built their offense were gone. "For a while we weredrawing up plays in the dirt," Grobe says. He inserted redshirt freshmanRiley Skinner at quarterback and reiterated the advice he had given Mauk duringthe spring. "You don't have to be the Green Hornet, and you don't have tobe Flash Gordon," he told Skinner. "You've just got to get us into theend zone."

In other wordsGrobe was looking for a steady hand, not heroics. He needed a quarterback whowouldn't make egregious errors, and he got more than that from Skinner, who ledthe ACC in completion percentage (66.1) and passing efficiency (140.1 rating),earning himself a place on the all-conference second team and the ACC freshmanof the year award. Meanwhile the undersized (5'11", 245 pounds) Abbate wasleading a defense that was, if not intimidating, at least opportunistic,intercepting 22 passes.

Grobe, a formerassistant at Air Force, instilled a military-style efficiency in his troops.The Deacons may not have had as much talent as some of their opponents, butthey almost always made fewer mistakes. Wake Forest forced 14 more turnoversthan it committed, the second-best ratio in the ACC. Grobe and his staffpreached that proper positioning would help avoid penalties--the Deacons werepenalized for a modest 45 yards per game.

As with anydefying-the-odds story, there was also luck involved. Wake's season could havebeen derailed in the second game, against lowly Duke, but the Blue Devilsbotched a 27-yard field goal attempt, kicking it low enough that safety ChipVaughn blocked it with his elbow on the final play to preserve a 14--13 WakeForest victory. Grobe acknowledged that his team was lucky to escape with a21--14 win over Boston College when BC quarterback Matt Ryan overthrew an openreceiver in the end zone and was intercepted in the last minute.

Wake Forest'ssuccess was much more dependent on preparation, attention to detail andold-fashioned hard work than it was on luck, but maybe, after years of being alaughingstock, Wake was due for a touch of good fortune, and a bit ofattention. There may be more of both in store for the Demon Deacons beyond thisyear, now that they seem to have hit on a winning formula. Quiet, unspectacularefficiency can help a program stay aloft for a long time, not unlike the way astrong December wind can blow through the trees that line the Wake Forest quad,causing toilet-paper pennants to flutter wildly.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (WEIS)SMOKING GUN Pressed into service because of an injury, Skinner led the ACC in completion percentage and passing efficiency. PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY SLIM FILMS PHOTOBOB ROSATO (HARVIN) PHOTOBOB ROSATO (BOWDEN) PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (TUBA PLAYER) PHOTOJIMMY DEFLIPPO/US PRESSWIRE (MIDGETT)FRUITFUL Linebacker Dominique Midgett celebrated Wake's Orange Bowl bid after beating Georgia Tech for the ACC title. ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY SLIM FILMS PHOTOMATTHEW SHARPE/WIREIMAGE.COM (CROOM) PHOTOCHARLES LECLAIRE/WIREIMAGE.COM (BROHM) PHOTOMARK CREAMER/CLEMSON SPORTS INFORMATION/AP (MCELRATHBEY)

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