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Acc Champ The Best Story Of League's Six(?) Bowl-eligible Teams

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Dave Glenn, ACCSports.com
November 17, 2003 TALLAHASSEE — There's a greater appreciation these days for what an ACC championship means to the Florida State football program. Pushed to the limit in a 50-44 double-overtime win against N.C. State, the Seminoles recently wrapped up their 11th league title — ninth outright — in 12 seasons. “This is the first one I think we won truly on a victory, maybe since way back,” senior middle linebacker Allen Augustin said. “This is what it came down to for us (seniors). Our last game at home … it was kind of a storybook ending.” FSU once again — and this title won't get any easier to attain, with Miami and Virginia Tech coming on board next season — is the cream of the crop in the conference. But if you're willing to accept that as fact, you also should consider the shortcomings the Seminoles managed to overcome along the way. Unlike in many years past, talent alone wasn't enough to lift this team to the top of the ACC heap. Most of those imperfections were on offense, where the Seminoles dealt with a myriad of problems, among them:

  • a re-tooled offensive line that lost four seniors from 2002 and was forced to play through numerous injuries and without a dominant player at either guard or center;
  • a mistake-prone quarterback in redshirt junior Chris Rix, whose inconsistencies made him no better than the league's fifth-best starter, behind N.C. State's Philip Rivers, Virginia's Matt Schaub, North Carolina's Darian Durant and Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst;
  • a running attack that revolved around senior tailback Greg Jones, who only on rare occasions resembled the 250-pound bruiser that plowed to nearly 1,000 yards before suffering a torn knee ligament last season. Though Jones received the lion's share of the attention, super-quick sophomore Leon Washington was the team's most productive runner;
  • though Craphonso Thorpe and P.K. Sam emerged as reliable go-to receivers from a deep corps, the Seminoles never developed a third wideout and/or a game-breaker in the Peter Warrick mold.
Overcoming those substantial obstacles was no easy task, and perhaps the team's relatively successful campaign wouldn't have transpired had FSU coach Bobby Bowden not demanded that his 2003 team stick together. Unity, the rally cry since last season's locker-room meltdown, had a lot to do with the team's ability to rise up in the face of adversity. Certainly, there were opportunities for the team to splinter, as it did a year ago. Rix's inability to perform at peak level in big games was a source of concern within the rank-and-file, but instead of lashing out at the quarterback, or mounting a campaign for worthy backup Fabian Walker, the team played on with very few public complaints. Why? Because Bowden demanded it and was willing to mortgage his late-career future on a player who has lost more games as the starter than the last four FSU quarterbacks combined. And what about the play-calling? Offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden was ripped from pillar to post for what many deemed unimaginative game plans and a lack of an identity. True, the Seminoles were neither an air-it-out or pound-it team, and their scheme remained far less complex than most, but they in fact benefited in key situations by having the versatility to do one or the other when opposing defenses dictated. Never was that more evident than the home finale against the Wolfpack, whose 116th-ranked pass defense seemed to dictate that the Seminoles put the ball in the hands of Rix and fly as far as the passing game would take them. But when Rix floundered early, they gave the running game a try — something they were criticized for not doing successfully in a 26-10 loss at Clemson — and it paid off with huge dividends. In the end, the Seminoles ground out a season-high 272 rushing yards against the nation's 21st-rated run defense. They had the nerve to entrust their ACC title and bowl future — at the time, it was either Jacksonville for the Gator or some warm-weather destination for a higher-profile event — to a sometimes shaky line and an up-and-down stable of runners. Freshman center John Frady, who was thrust into action when starter David Castillo was injured on the final drive of regulation, said there was a calm and confidence that the Seminoles would deliver in the second overtime. “We said in the huddle we were going to end it on this play,” Frady said, referring to Washington's huge-hole, 12-yard, clinching touchdown run. “It was one thought. Everybody had it. ‘This is it.'” In many ways, Washington's second overtime run, after Augustin broke up Rivers' fourth-down pass to Jerricho Cotchery, may have been the ultimate “it” for the FSU program. Certainly, for 12 scholarship seniors, their careers would be defined by whether or not the Seminoles could beat the Wolfpack for the league title in their final home game. After all, this was a group that had been a party to the end of so many notable accomplishments and a witness to tragedy. Arriving on the heels of a national championship, they were there when the Seminoles squandered a chance for a repeat in an embarrassing 13-2 Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma. They were there when the team suffered its first four- and five-loss seasons in 15 years, ending a 14-year dynasty of 10-win seasons and top-five poll finishes. They watched as Maryland ended their otherwise perfect run of ACC titles in 2001, despite hammering the Terrapins, by losing their first and only league home game to the same Wolfpack. Off the field, they watched a teammate and classmate, Devaughn Darling, die during an offseason workout. That led to a still-unsettled lawsuit and cast doubt among some players about the way FSU went about its conditioning program. Last season's dissension prompted the rise of Adrian McPherson to quarterback, and his subsequent fall when he was accused of gambling, which launched a divisive, program-wide investigation. Then, just when it seemed as if the Seminoles had salvaged their 2002 season, with Rix leading the team to victory over Florida, he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl for failing to take a final exam. That loss to Georgia, with the arm-injured Walker at the helm, wasn't any easier to take a day later, when Bowden all but anointed Rix as his starter for 2003. N.C. State coach Chuck Amato, who recruited several of FSU's seniors before leaving for the Wolfpack post in January 2000, offered a voice of empathy during the week leading up to this year's FSU game. “Unfortunately for those youngsters (FSU seniors), they happened to be there when the law of averages took over,” Amato said. “I feel sorry for those youngsters, because it was their time to be there.” Resiliency, however, can be a wonderful elixir. So can faith, as in the kind Bowden showed to his quarterback and team, and they in turn showed to each other. The days of taking an ACC title for granted are officially over at Florida State, and there is no better example than a trip back in time to 1995. That's when the Seminoles and Wolfpack last combined for 94 points at Doak Campbell Stadium — in FSU's 77-17 victory. How times have changed. “Never has a game,” Bowden said, “been as meaningful to us in the conference.” Healthy Line Resuscitates Maryland COLLEGE PARK — It's amazing how simple football can be sometimes. For as long as the game has been played, one big key to success has been controlling the line of scrimmage. Offensively, that translates into running the ball effectively. Maryland's offense has been out of sync all season, and fans have debated the reasons why. Fingers have been pointed at inconsistent quarterback Scott McBrien, injury-prone tailback Bruce Perry and ineffective wide receivers such as Jafar Williams. In reality, the Terrapins' struggles all initiated from one thing: poor offensive line play. A revamped line, beset by injuries, simply did not block well for most of the season. That prevented Maryland from getting its vaunted running game going, and it hampered the passing attack as well. Maryland won 21 games in Ralph Friedgen's initial two seasons, largely by establishing and sticking with the run. In fact, a veteran line led by Todd Wike and Matt Crawford was so dominant that the Terps were able to run pretty much at will, especially late in games when the defense wore down. It didn't really matter who was the running back, as evidenced by the fact that career backup Chris Downs rushed for 1,154 yards a year after Perry busted out for 1,242. It was telling that none of Maryland's three talented tailbacks found much running room earlier this season. Friedgen tried Perry, Josh Allen and Sammy Maldonado at various times, all with limited degrees of success. The proof was in the numbers. Maryland averaged only 160 yards rushing through eight games, a figure padded by a 282-yard output against Division I-AA Citadel. Last season, the Terrapins ranked second in the ACC in rushing offense, with an average of 198 yards per game. When coaches reviewed film, they usually found that the holes simply weren't there, and most of the blame fell on the interior of the line. Center Kyle Schmitt, a first-year starter, was routinely getting beat by the nose tackle. Guards C.J. Brooks and Lamar Bryant, the most experienced members of the unit, also were not getting much movement. Maryland hit rock bottom in its 7-3 loss to Georgia Tech, managing only 96 yards rushing on 38 attempts. Friedgen was highly critical of the line's play in that contest, calling the blocking effort the worst in his tenure at Maryland. “Their pad level was too high, their technique was poor, they were missing their marks,” Friedgen said. “Our guys looked tentative. They weren't coming off the ball.” There was a legitimate reason why guard play had not been a strength, as expected. Both Bryant and Brooks had been hobbled all season by nagging injuries. When those two 300-pounders, by far the strongest of the line's starters, got healthy in recent weeks, so did the running game. Maryland rushed for 252 yards against North Carolina, creating gaping holes up the middle that sprung Perry for big gain after big gain. Yet there remained doubt as to whether that effort could be attributed largely to the fact that UNC fielded one of the weakest defenses in recent ACC history, especially against the run. Bryant and company erased all doubt with another dominating performance against Virginia, which did boast a solid rushing defense. For perhaps the first time all season, the line looked totally cohesive in repeatedly blowing the Cavaliers off the ball. It was a return to the type of blocking of years past that allowed any tailback to run for big yardage. In this case it was Allen, who busted out for 257 yards, the third-best rushing effort in Maryland history. “We're finally coming together. We're working as one, blocking in unison,” Schmitt said after the Virginia game. “It's been a struggle all season. It seemed like there were always one or two guys not getting their block, which broke down the whole play. Tonight, we were all coming off the ball hard and really getting a good push.” Added Friedgen: “I told the guys after the Georgia Tech game: When you don't do your job, everyone wants to know your name. When you block the way you're supposed to, you're anonymous. That's the life of a lineman.” Maryland will lose two starters off this year's line: Bryant and right tackle Eric Dumas. Massive true freshman Brandon Nixon likely will battle career backup Lou Lombardo for the tackle spot in the spring, while there is talk of shifting Schmitt to guard and plugging true freshman Andrew Crummey in at center. The entire staff has been extremely impressed with Crummey, an intelligent player who already has picked up most of the blocking schemes. He is extremely athletic, possessing the type of footwork and quickness coaches look for in a center. That coaches are talking about Crummey at center makes one wonder about the status of Robert Jenkins, the junior college transfer who was supposed to challenge Schmitt this season. Jenkins, who sat out this fall to concentrate on academics, has not been mentioned by any member of the staff recently. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but offensive line coach Tom Brattan said he feels good about all of his young charges. Guard Garrett Clig has displayed tremendous strength, while tackle Brock Choate has flashed some potential. Redshirt sophomore Russell Bonham has looked decent in limited playing time and is certainly a candidate to replace Bryant. As chronicled in this space many times, Maryland has been hurt by an incredibly high attrition rate along the offensive line. They just seem to drop like flies, with guard Akil Patterson the latest to leave school. Other recent losses include center Jason Holman (academics) and guard Nathaniel Clayton (transferred to Morgan State). Friedgen wisely is trying to stockpile offensive linemen on the recruiting trail. He already has two commitments from the big boys for next season, in guard Scott Burley and center Edwin Williams. The Terps apparently are hoping to land a few more and are involved with some highly touted prospects, including Chris Rutledge of Florida, Idris Bauta of New York and Jamie Thomas of Pennsylvania. Bowden's Future Still In Question? CLEMSON — It was just one sentence, and not a lot of media types caught it. During his post-game press conference after Clemson's impressive 40-7 victory over Duke, Tommy Bowden either made an innocent mistake or gave everyone a glimpse of his uncertain future. While trying to put together a rambling answer on his team, Bowden uttered this: “I thought we were building a solid foundation here.” Maybe it was nothing, just a slip of the tongue, but Bowden certainly sounded like a man who had other plans than being the head football coach at Clemson. There is something going on at Clemson, and very few reliable people inside or outside the athletic department claim to know how this little orange-colored soap opera is going to end. Everybody has a different rumor, a different story to tell. Everybody knows somebody who guarantees that a certain scenario is going to unfold. Finding the correct story is the real task. Here are the possible endings to this season at Clemson:
  • Clemson beats South Carolina to finish 8-4, gets a better bowl trip than it expected after getting destroyed at Wake Forest, and Bowden and the athletic administration announce his desire to continue his career with the Tigers. That announcement likely would include a contract extension.
  • Bowden beats South Carolina and then — in Ken Hatfield-like fashion — announces he's going to pursue his career somewhere else, somewhere he is appreciated. Clemson took a real beating from Bobby and Ann Bowden in the press before and after the Florida State game. To paraphrase Ann, Tommy has plenty of money, Clemson can't win the right way unless Tommy is in charge, and if they fire Tommy, the only way they're going to win in the future is by cheating. And the story of the elder Bowden leaving dissatisfied West Virginia for struggling FSU many years ago was told several times before the Seminoles came to town. Is the son planning on following in his father's footsteps by bolting, if he gets the right opportunity? One of the possible landing places, hypothetically at least, is Mississippi State. There were several reports the week before the Duke game that someone in the Bowden camp initiated contact with MSU.
  • Bowden loses to South Carolina and then is fired by athletic director Terry Don Phillips. That decision would be based on several factors, including wins and losses. Phillips, who has promised to evaluate Bowden after the season, was silent during the recent weeks of controversy. To some people, that silence spoke volumes about Bowden's future. The buzz before the Duke game was that a move already had been made. Meanwhile, insiders said Phillips is taking an Olympic judge-type approach to evaluating Bowden — throw out the high (Florida State), throw out the low (Wake Forest) and grade the rest.
  • Bowden loses to South Carolina and the Hatfield-type departure takes place. The company line would be that Bowden asked for a contract extension after the season and Phillips decided against it, so the two parties decided to go in different directions.
If there is a change, who will get the job? Insiders said Phillips would serve as a one-man search committee, just as he did in the basketball search. Several names already have been floated, including the name of a legendary Clemson coach who still lives nearby. Insiders don't think that will happen, but it's at least a possibility. Clemson's effort against Florida State was one of the finest and the most unexpected in the history of the program. The Tigers, 13-point underdogs, truly were dominant from start to finish in a 16-point victory. In the aftermath, nobody could explain it. FSU looked like a team that was mailing it in, but to a man, the Seminoles said they didn't lie down to save Tommy Bowden's job. Understandably, just about everyone believed them. Clemson seized the momentum early, the crowd got into the game, FSU quarterback Chris Rix was awful, and the Seminoles started bickering on the sideline. Before the Duke game, the Tigers gave the Blue Devils a healthy dose of respect. After being down two touchdowns late in Durham last season and watching Duke dismantle Georgia Tech this fall, the Tigers knew the run-oriented Blue Devils were capable of causing some problems. But the Tigers had no trouble controlling Duke's running game. They got a quick 14-0 lead, then cruised to victory. The Tigers limited the Blue Devils to just 174 total yards, and they exploited Duke's problems in the secondary with their talented receiving corps. With the exception of the Wake Forest game, defensive coordinator John Lovett's group has gotten the job done for most of the season. Against both FSU and Duke, the Tigers were emotional and physical and took the fight to the opposition. Linebacker John Leake said after the Duke game that Clemson's defense started playing “downhill” after getting stunned at Wake. The offensive game plan against FSU was the Tigers' best of the season. The surprise element was quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, who had 19 carries against the Seminoles and made several big runs. Another noticeable change in the FSU and Duke games was the use of the wide receivers. Whitehurst threw the ball down the field and threw some passes up for grabs, so his big receivers — Kevin Youngblood and Derrick Hamilton — could make plays. Outsiders probably are wondering why Bowden's job security still is being questioned after Clemson's upset of FSU. In short, it's about politics and attitude.

Phillips and Bowden don't see eye to eye on a lot of things. One small example: the purple jerseys. Before the Duke game, a press release was issued, indicating that the seniors had asked to wear purple jerseys in their final home game. Earlier in the season, Phillips said the Tigers would never wear purple at home because of the “One Clemson, Solid Orange” campaign. According to the press release, “the Clemson seniors requested they wear the purple jerseys on Senior Day against Duke, and (Bowden and Phillips) granted their wish.” Because of the “One Clemson, Solid Orange” campaign, the Tigers had to wear orange pants with the purple jerseys. Thankfully, Jefferson-Pilot was in Atlanta for the UNC-Tech game. Insiders have said for months that the relationship between Phillips and Bowden is cool at best. Bowden said they talk at least once a week, because Phillips is a football guy. Meanwhile, one of the categories in Bowden's postseason evaluation will be whether or not he's considered a “team player” in the Clemson athletic department. Ask everyone in the athletic department about that topic, and most will tell you the same thing: Bowden gets an unsatisfactory grade in that category. Hokies Suffer Another Late Fade BLACKSBURG — Since the start of the new millennium, the late season has been the cruelest season for Virginia Tech's football program. Early dreams of playing in BCS games have turned into late-season nightmares in each of the last four seasons. From 1996-99, Virginia Tech played some of its best football during crunch time. The Hokies were 12-4 in games played in the months of November and December, and the losses came by an average of less than a touchdown (6.8 points). The 2000-03 seasons haven't been the same. After squeezing by Temple 24-23 in overtime on Nov. 15, Virginia Tech raised its November and December mark in 2000-03 to 7-8 overall and 3-8 in Big East competition. The eight losses came by an average of 13.3 points. Following a 31-28 loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 8 that virtually eliminated the Hokies from BCS and Big East title contention, Tech coach Frank Beamer challenged his team. He told them he believed they could be one of the four best teams in program history. He told them they had the capability to become the third team in school history to finish with 11 wins, and the fourth to end the season ranked in the Associated Press top 10. “I think looking at what's possible and not what could have been is what's important,” Beamer said. Heading into Tech's 28-7 loss to West Virginia on Oct. 22, it would've been difficult to imagine Beamer ever addressing his team's desire. But a lot has changed since that day. A quarterback controversy has emerged in Blacksburg. Junior Bryan Randall, who spent the first half of the season being mentioned as a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate, has been in a duel with redshirt freshman Marcus Vick for the starting QB position. A rash of nagging injuries to starters and key backups made depth an issue for the Hokies on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The injuries included a medial collateral ligament injury to one of offensive guard Jacob Gibson's knees, an MCL injury for defensive tackle Kevin Lewis, a dislocated right thumb for defensive end Nathaniel Adibi and a dislocated left shoulder for defensive tackle Jason Lallis. An inability to finish teams off, a task the Hokies struggled with in the first few games of the season, crept back up again. Pittsburgh rallied for a game-winning touchdown in the final minute of its game against Tech. Temple came back from 17 points down in the last 14 minutes of regulation to tie Tech and send the game to overtime. A propensity to miss tackles re-appeared as well. Poor tackling technique plagued the Hokies in a three-game, late-season losing streak in 2002, and it caused Tech trouble in the Pitt and Temple games this year. Linebackers Mikal Baaqee and Vegas Robinson were the main culprits. Now, one has to wonder how focused standout players such as split end Ernest Wilford, cornerback DeAngelo Hall and tailback Kevin Jones will be down the stretch, with their BCS hopes finally squashed. Wilford, a senior, is being projected as a possible first- or second-round pick in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, Hall and Jones are considering the possibility of skipping their senior seasons and jumping to the NFL. Jones' numbers certainly haven't reflected any lack of focus, but Hall failed to stay between the receiver and the ball on several occasions late in the season. Perhaps the most likely reason for Tech's late swoons in recent history can simply be explained as post-BCS depression. November losses in each of the last four seasons crushed any lingering hopes the Hokies had for bids to BCS games. Of course, if Tech had played the month of November with the opportunity to play in a BCS game still on the line, who's to say things would've been any different? But it does appear that the prospects of making another trip to a second-tier bowl took the steam out of the Hokies. “It's tough because I know all of us sacrificed something,” Baaqee said. “This summer, I sacrificed a lot. I sacrificed things with my family I'll never get back. Just to be (in Blacksburg) and do the little things. I'm not regretting it, but I mean the goals I had planned on working for and sacrificed other things for, now (those goals) are gone, too. It's sort of tough.” The Hokies will have to lose that attitude long before they dive into the ACC next season. If they don't, and the schedule-makers don't do Tech any favors and put teams such as FSU and Maryland late in the season, the Hokies might be destined to continue this undesirable trend. Wolfpack: Good Calls, Bad Results RALEIGH — Before anyone says it, there were few similarities between the back-to-back quarterback sneaks that didn't work for N.C. State in the triple-overtime loss at Ohio State and the back-to-back quarterback sneaks called in the second overtime of the Wolfpack's 50-44 loss to Florida State. In the former, State coach Chuck Amato had options, but he chose to save beat-up tailback T.A. McLendon for a fourth-down attempt that ultimately failed, ending his team's bid for an amazing comeback. It was widely regarded as a poor decision by a first-year offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, who was still getting a feel for his new team. But against the Seminoles, going to superhero Philip Rivers, who gained nine yards on second down and was stopped for no gain on third down, shouldn't be criticized. There were few other options in the Wolfpack's non-existent running game, and Rivers already had run for a six-yard touchdown that no one on the FSU defense expected. After he had shredded them through the air all game long, Rivers was the only real choice to attempt to get the two feet needed for the first down. But Florida State senior tackle Darnell Dockett, perhaps the best defensive player in the ACC this season, combined with senior linebacker Allen Augustin to hit Rivers behind the line of scrimmage. The options were limited because McLendon was hurt again, stopped by a bruised shoulder he suffered in the fourth quarter. And Amato had completely given up on senior Cotra Jackson, sophomore Josh Brown and Reggie Davis, the freshman who burned his redshirt year three weeks before when McLendon was out following two knee surgeries. Davis carried the ball once in the FSU game. The only other running back the Wolfpack used was multi-purpose man Tramain Hall, in a split formation with McLendon. So, by the time the Wolfpack had the ball in a fourth-and-one situation, Amato was left with a choice that was immediately open for second-guessing: He decided to go for a first down instead of a field goal. Again, it didn't work out, but it was the right move for the Pack under the circumstances. Amato wanted to be aggressive, to leave the ball in the hands of one of the best players in school history (Rivers), and he obviously had lost faith in his placekicker. Senior Adam Kiker, who after the game admitted he had doubts about himself, already had missed a field goal and an extra point that may have prevented the game from going to overtime in the first place. Amato even went to redshirt freshman John Deraney, previously a kickoffs-only specialist for the Wolfpack, for extra points following the Pack's last touchdown of regulation and its touchdown in the first overtime. So Amato called for his sure thing: a short pass from Rivers to senior wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, a play that had been open and frequently used all game long. It would have worked again had Augustin, who has been struggling with injuries and was not expected to play in the game, not tipped the ball at the last second. The Wolfpack didn't score, and the Seminoles needed only two plays to score the game-winning touchdown. Was it the right thing to do? Yes. The Wolfpack had made so many mistakes earlier in the game, it couldn't hope to just out-last the Seminoles. It needed to do something to win the game as soon as possible. Where Amato can be criticized is how his team handled the end of the first half. Leading
20-10 and backed up on his own goal line, Amato chose to give the ball to McLendon with less than a minute to play before the break. The pro-FSU crowd was in shock, and the Wolfpack had all the momentum. Then McLendon, strangely fighting for extra yards on a meaningless play near the sideline, fumbled it away and gave the ball to the Seminoles at the three-yard line. Even Chris Rix could get his team into the end zone from there. McLendon's fumble clearly was the biggest play of an exciting game filled with big plays, but most of the post-game questions went in a different direction: Was Amato's fourth-down gamble the right thing to do? His mentor thought so. “It was a very gutsy call, and very typical of Chuck,” FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. “You have to hand it to him. That really takes some guts to do what he did. He went for the win all the way.” Of course, those comments came from the same guy who thought an on-sides kick was a good idea in the third quarter. Still, Amato stuck by his decision to try for the win on the road, with the ACC championship hanging in the balance. “The right thing to do is probably go for the field goal and make them have to score a touchdown,” Amato said. “But I said, ‘Hey, let's win. Let them have the tough thing to do and score a touchdown, too.' I don't want to play 25 overtimes.” Daniels Symbolizes Tech Success ATLANTA — In this season of exceeded expectations, perhaps no Georgia Tech player better epitomizes the team's rise quite like sophomore tailback P.J. Daniels, the fun-loving, never-tiring former walk-on who has been among ACC leaders in rushing all season. Like the Yellow Jackets, who were picked to finish eighth in the conference in the preseason, Daniels entered this fall with very few expectations. After all, he came to Tech as a walk-on, after scholarship offers from Stanford, Northwestern and Tulane fell through because Daniels made his qualifying standardized test score late. A 5-10, 205-pound bundle of energy, Daniels began last season as the team's seventh-string tailback. Others' injuries and ineffectiveness gave Daniels a chance and, despite a lack of breakaway speed, he emerged as an effective straight-ahead option for the Jackets. He rushed for 255 yards on 72 carries in 2002 and at times showed an ability to be the team's workhorse, but he was expected to return to a backup role again this season. Instead, he emerged from a muddled tailback situation to replace Tony Hollings, who failed out of school in the spring and quickly left for the NFL. Now Daniels, who worked long and hard for his opportunity, isn't about to let it slip away. Daniels rushed for more than 1,000 yards through 10 games — oddly, that marked just the seventh 1,000-yard season in school history — and his workload has been extraordinary. No other Tech tailback has emerged as an effective player, so Daniels does the vast majority of running. He's also the team's best blocking tailback, meaning he often stays in the backfield in passing situations. He's improved as a pass catcher, and his all-out hustle has saved the Yellow Jackets on a number of occasions, whether it's recovering a fumble or making a tackle following an interception. Daniels has done it mainly with tough, up-the-middle running and an ability to break tackles. He often drags defenders for a few extra yards and refuses to step out of bounds, something he said he learned from his childhood idol, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton. Tech feeds off Daniels' energy. “I really never see this guy tired in the huddle,” senior receiver Jonathan Smith said, after Daniels carried 36 times for 240 yards against North Carolina. “I'll be out there blocking for him, and I come back and put my hands on my knees, and he's still up there smiling and ready for the next play.” It doesn't hurt that Daniels is among the most popular players on the team, a nod to his hard work, determination and easy smile. He is quick to joke with his teammates and consistently credits his linemen and fullbacks for his standout efforts. Daniels emerged as a team leader in the offseason, when he took a small group of players to coach Chan Gailey's office to express confidence in their leader despite a tumultuous offseason. Gailey can't help but smile when talking about Daniels, a player who would be a big part of the team even if he never took the field. But in what could have been a trying season — Tech's preseason problems have been well-documented — Daniels' on-field contributions have been almost immeasurable. With a true freshman quarterback and a spotty passing game, Daniels has allowed the Yellow Jackets to sustain drives and give their thin defense much-needed recovery time on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Tech continues to look for a home-run threat in the backfield. True freshman Rashaun Grant, who has spent this season on the scout team while recovering from a nasty ankle injury suffered in high school, could be that guy. The Yellow Jackets also will try to bring in a big back and a speed back during the current recruiting cycle. Of course, bumping Daniels from the starting lineup will be tough. He's come too far to give it up easily. Excitement, Bowl Hopes Fade Fast WINSTON-SALEM — The theme running through this Wake Forest football season is that the bloom has come off the rose for Jim Grobe and his staff. Everyone still agrees Grobe is a great coach and a perfect fit for the Demon Deacons, but the 2003 campaign has proven to be the reality check many predicted in August. In Grobe's first two seasons, few of his moves were questioned. Virtually everyone was simply shocked at what they were seeing, and Grobe could do no wrong. But this season, the gloves have come off. Despite the lower expectations and some big wins, Grobe and his staff are being questioned on many points. It's difficult for many to remember that, before the season, almost everyone agreed it would be difficult for Grobe to repeat his success. That's because, two games into the season, Wake was in the Top 25 for the first time in 10 years, after upsetting Boston College and N.C. State. That wasn't the team Grobe had been warning everyone was thin at key positions and very young. That was just more magic from Grobe and his staff. Gradually, though, bad things began to happen, and reality set in. Since then, reporters twice have had to ask Grobe whether a particular game was Wake's worst performance in his three seasons. That happened after home losses to Georgia Tech and Connecticut. In those games, the Deacons appeared completely flat, something that hadn't been seen previously from a Grobe-led team. Now they have to beat a very solid Maryland program just to finish 6-6, and nobody is giving the Deacs much of a chance in that one. Defensive coordinator Dean Hood has come under heavy fire, as his unit will finish near the bottom of the ACC for a third straight season. Hood's task has been very difficult, as he hasn't had the personnel needed to dominate the line. He's had to basically invent a 3-3-5 scheme to take advantage of what he does have. Still, some of Hood's techniques have been questionable. The most obvious has been a willingness to allow teams to complete seven- to 10-yard out routes with ease. Wake's cornerbacks regularly give huge cushions, then back up with the snap. Even when teams need only five yards, the Deacons generally won't jam receivers at the line. Hood probably deserves the benefit of the doubt for this season, because his front-line talent was so limited. But next fall, his real test will arrive, and he may have to change schemes. The Deacons will be deep and pretty talented along the front and in the secondary, but they'll be thin at linebacker. The pressure will be on to stop opponents, not just slow them down and hope they make mistakes. Meanwhile, first-year offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke has shown his inexperience. A few of his plans have been inventive, keeping opponents guessing, much like his predecessor, Troy Calhoun, often did. But many have been the opposite, as Lobotzke seemed to vacillate between trying new things and trying to establish Wake's old standbys, the inside zone run and the orbit sweep. More often than not, he's been too conservative, as Wake's talent lies at the skill positions and not on the offensive line. Several opponents have basically said they've known what was coming. Lobotzke has failed under pressure as well. At key points, Wake made bad decisions against Purdue, Virginia and North Carolina. For Grobe, the worst part is that this season has given outsiders — especially recruits — a reason to say, “Same old Wake Forest.” That's not just on the field, but in the stands. Despite some big home crowds, bowl scouts don't seem to feel much differently about the Deacons. A Continental Tire Bowl official recently told one reporter that the bowl's representatives would do anything they could to avoid picking Wake Forest. After seeing Wake's turnout at the UNC game, a Peach Bowl representative just snickered and made a disparaging remark about the Deacs. Empty seats don't spend money in town, on concessions, etc. “Same old Wake Forest” probably isn't the reality, but it's the perception in some circles, and everyone understands the importance of perception. Cavaliers Display Need For Speed CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was one positive note for Virginia in a mid- to late-season swoon that resulted in three straight losses and four in a span of five games: All of those defeats came on the road, and the Cavs' final two regular-season games are at Scott Stadium. That's not to say Virginia (3-1 at home) didn't have some problems to address after giving up more than 1,000 yards in losses at N.C. State (51-37) and Maryland (27-17). The Cavaliers defeated both of those teams in Charlottesville during a 2002 season that may have raised expectations to an unrealistic level. Al Groh's second Virginia team finished 9-5 in 2002, despite ranking eighth in the ACC in total defense and ninth in total offense. Moreover, UVa was out-gained in five straight victories, the kind of numbers that eventually catch up with a team. As a result, the Cavaliers went into the final weeks of the regular season at 5-5 overall and 3-4 in the ACC. Virginia needs to beat either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech just to have the .500 record that would make the Cavaliers eligible for consideration by one of the six bowls with which the ACC is affiliated. There's no secret as to what it will take for Virginia to get back on the winning track. The Cavaliers must eliminate big plays by the opposition. Virginia allowed a scoring play of 75 yards or more in four of its losses, including an 80-yard run by Maryland sophomore Josh Allen at a time when UVa had momentum for the first time all night. The scary part was, even Allen's teammates thought he had been stopped at the line of scrimmage. However, Muffin Curry's failure to provide outside containment and the absence of speed throughout UVa's secondary made for a game-turning situation. Groh has made it a point to upgrade the Cavaliers' team speed through recruiting, but Virginia seemed unusually slow against the Terrapins. It might have helped if free safety Willie Davis hadn't been hurt in the season's second week, but Davis may never return after suffering nerve damage in a collision at South Carolina. The Cavaliers are redshirting sophomore Michael Johnson, probably the team's fastest player, but Johnson is a tailback prospect who wouldn't be playing defense anyway. Linebackers Darryl Blackstock (outside) and Ahmad Brooks (inside) have uncommon speed, but UVa has problems at the defensive skill positions. The same goes for the offense, where quarterback Matt Schaub has broken the UVa career passing record despite relying heavily on backs Alvin Pearman and Wali Lundy, as well as tight end Heath Miller. Top returning wide receiver Michael McGrew, who suffered a season-ending injury in August, was not a deep threat. Nor are the current starters, Ryan Sawyer and Ottowa Anderson. The Cavaliers have been able to parlay Groh's energy and the 2002 turnaround into two successful recruiting years but, if Virginia wants to make an impression with the uncommitted players in this year's class, it needs to show some life in the last two games.

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