September 30, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM — The honeymoon may not be over yet for coach Jim Grobe with the fans at Wake Forest, but perhaps it has ended in his relationship with Lady Luck. Last year, Grobe and the Deacons came out on the right side of enough close games to finish 6-5. But much was made of the fact that Wake was 26 points away from a 10-1 season and 22 points away from a 1-10 season.
This year, the Deacons have been on the other end so far, losing games against Northern Illinois (42-41) and Virginia (38-34) they probably should have won. They were done in by what drives coaches the craziest: basic execution. They failed in the kicking game and with ill-timed penalties. Two other factors also became obvious: second-half struggles and the lack of a pass defense.
Second-half woes usually point to two things: the opposition making better halftime adjustments or not being as tired. While one could make a small case for the former in some games, the more glaring seems to be the latter.
Last year, other than on the defensive line, Grobe prided himself on having a team that could stay fresh down the stretch by rotating players. The Deacons basically played teams straight-up in the second half, getting outscored 157-154. Two of their biggest victories, over Virginia and North Carolina, came with strong second-half performances.
But this season, the Deacs were outscored 84-52 in the second half through five games. They had only seven fourth-quarter points.
Depth certainly played a factor. Wake continues to have none along the defensive line, and now it doesn’t have much on the offensive line, either. This is vital to keeping its running game going. Last year, the Deacons rotated 10 players up front. This year, they basically have six, seven if center Craig Jones is healthy.
The rest of the list is sketchy: Joe Salsich just moved from defense after spring practice. Senior Masanori Toguchi and junior Chad Rebar are little-used career reserves. Redshirt freshman Greg Adkins doesn’t even get a vote of confidence from the normally optimistic media guide: “probably won’t see a great deal of playing time this season.”
The other problem, pass defense, is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. Which is worse, the Deacons’ pass rush or their pass defenders? So far, the answer has been the pass rush, but that may only be because defensive coordinator Dean Hood seems unwilling to blitz much, thanks to a glaring lack of quality cover men.
The Deacons essentially have been picked apart by quarterbacks sitting back in the pocket with all day to pass. If ECU quarterback Paul Troth had a few more games of experience under his belt, it’s likely he would have done the same and added another loss to Wake’s total. Though the Deacons’ defense appeared to play well against the Pirates, those who saw the game know how close Troth was to a break-out performance — if only he had more seasoning.
The Deacons’ pass-rush problems can’t be solved if they don’t blitz. It’s unrealistic to think that a three-man rush is going to pressure anyone. Quarterbacks have shown how easily they can pass when given time, despite Wake sometimes dropping eight players into coverage.
But the other problem is the talent level in the secondary. Wake regularly plays a bunch of defensive backs, including five who start in the 3-3-5 defensive look. But few of them are outstanding players.
Only Caron Bracy was a nationally noted recruit. Among the others, Quintin Willams and Obi Chukwumah have played well, but both have been bothered by injuries this fall. Eric King has shown some promise. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been the good play of redshirt freshman Dominic Anderson, who switched from running back in the spring.
But although they have a lot of players to add together, the sum hasn’t been very impressive. Another problem has been the small size of most of their defensive backs, especially their corners, who are all 5-9. The problem was highlighted against Virginia, who repeatedly threw to wideout Billy McMullen (6-4) and tight end Heath Miller (6-5).
“The things that bother me the most are the deep balls,” Grobe said after the game. “I don’t know if we went out and did it over again we’d be any better, because I thought the quarterback made some really nice throws to some tall receivers. Our corners are not big.”
Thomas, Young Extremely Quiet
The Deacons’ offense hasn’t been struggling too often this season, but the lack of touches for two players still begs to be questioned.
Tight end Ray Thomas, who may be in the NFL next season, had four catches in the first five games. This after he caught 39 passes last season for a 12.1-yard average.
Meanwhile, new wide receiver Anthony Young had four catches through five games. This from a player who is a proven big-play threat: He had three runs of more than 53 yards two years ago, and he broke a 71-yarder against FSU last year.
With Young, at least, there are some mitigating factors: His hands are still questionable, even on routine balls, and his desire level has been questioned by coaches and players. He even received a dressing-down from a teammate in front of the rest of the team earlier this season.
Still, the talents of the two players seem to fit right in with what should be James MacPherson’s strength: a solid short passing game. Thomas can catch short passes under coverage and is difficult to bring down. Young could be thrown a couple of screens a game to see what he can make out of them. With his past experience at quarterback, he also would open the option of a pass off a lateral.
Hoops: Hows Howards Health?
While football is in season, many eyes have been on a Wake basketball player lately. Josh Howard, a potential ACC player of the year, was spotted walking with an oversized boot on his foot, raising some major questions.
Howard suffered a severe ankle injury late last season, then tried to play on it, possibly too soon. People wondered whether the injury was still bothering him.
It turns out that the ankle wasn’t the problem directly, but that Howard got a case of severe shin splints from working out too hard during his recovery. The Wake Forest staff believes Howard will be ready for the start of practice, but he’s missed a significant amount of workout time in the last seven months.
More importantly, the chance remains that this injury will continue to bother him. Shin splints are unpredictable. Often, they can go away permanently. But sometimes, often depending on how they are treated, they can continue to come back. The loss of Howard for an extended period could destroy Wake’s season, and having him at less than full strength would be an unfortunate distraction.