October 4, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM After its first five games this season, Wake Forest was 3-2, giving it a strong shot at winning five games for the fourth straight (all under coach Jim Grobe) season. The last time the Demon Deacons did that was in the late 1940s.
Under Grobe, Wake has won three of its first five games for two seasons in a row. The Deacons had done that only once in the previous 13 years.
Schools around the ACC are looking admiringly at Grobe. No one wants to play the Deacs. Grobe is 12-4 against in-state teams, including a three-point loss and an OT defeat to N.C. State. He's competing at a small private school against large public schools with many built-in advantages. Expect his name to be mentioned again this year with some job openings around the country.
But in Wake Forest land, perspective is sometimes a difficult thing to come by. Grobe's success has built expectations to a point where very little of the above matters. The Deacons have been so close that, despite those positives, many Wake fans now are ripping coordinators, quarterbacks and anyone else who fits their idea of a goat.
In Grobe's first season, Wake was bowl-eligible with six wins but stayed home. Fans got to think about the team's four ACC losses by seven points or less. The coach's second season brought seven wins and a bowl victory, but even then some fans got to wonder about what might have happened if Wake hadn't lost by one at Northern Illinois in overtime and fallen apart in a four-point loss at Virginia.
Last year, Wake was one game from being bowl-eligible, losing winnable games against Purdue and Virginia, then folding down the stretch. The Deacons lost their last three games, providing North Carolina with its only ACC win in the process.
This year, Wake already has blown second-half leads at Clemson and N.C. State, losing in overtime in both cases. Now, a seven-win season looks unlikely, and even six might be a stretch. Never mind that many prognosticators predicted that five would be good before the season started.
So why the full-scale Deacon freak-out? Three areas deserve some focus.
Quarterback Debate Heating Up
Yes, the Wake Forest offensive line is not quite as good as in past years, and yes, game-breaking wideout Jason Anderson has been out with an injury. But if the offense struggles, the quarterback is going to get the majority of the blame. And if the backup quarterback makes himself look just good enough, then it's a full-scale controversy.
After the N.C. State game, newspaper coverage of the Demon Deacons declared that there wasn't a controversy mainly because Ben Mauk, the backup, declined to say anything but the party line. But other quotes that day added enough fuel to the fire that the probing QB questions are unlikely to die unless Mauk starts or Randolph goes undefeated for the rest of the season.
The first came from Micah Andrews, a Wake running back who, as a redshirt freshman, is a little too young to know to keep his mouth shut to the press on an issue such as this one.
"I guess maybe it's just that magic that Ben Mauk brings to the field," Andrews said.
Then John McCargo, an N.C. State defensive tackle, said: "When (Randolph) was in there, they were running the whole time. He has a good arm, but when he's in there they have a tendency to run more, so that kind of tipped us off."
No matter what else happens this season, those quotes will be used to show that Mauk has "it' (whatever "it" is) and that Wake is scared and/or predictable when Randolph is in the game.
So how much truth is there in all of that? Well, the Sports Journal has said several times that Randolph is not a dynamic leader, and that the quarterback battle may be waged with how the two galvanize their teammates as much as by their play itself.
Mauk does seem to bring a presence to the field and huddle, and Andrews' comment brought that out. Mauk fakes and moves well in the running game, throws well and has a "playmaker" sense about him. Some Wake fans already are asking: Would it be better to go ahead and lose with the future if you're already losing with the present?
It's difficult to prove this one with stats, but the numbers do tend to lean toward Mauk so far. In Wake's three big games this season (Clemson, Boston College, NCSU), Randolph was 23-of-50 passing for 224 yards and one interception. Mauk was 11-of-15 for 164 yards, with one touchdown and one interception.
In those games, Randolph led 26 drives, and Wake scored two touchdowns, four field goals and missed two field goals. One of those touchdowns was basically all a Chris Barclay run, and one field goal and one miss came in overtime, when Randolph didn't really have to do anything to get Wake into position to score. Randolph's average drive was 21.1 yards.
In those same games, Mauk led 10 drives, and Wake scored five touchdowns. One 80-yard drive was all runs, one came on a wide receiver pass, and another came on a Hail Mary to Jason Anderson. Mauk easily could have three interceptions and no touchdowns at this point, as the Anderson pass and one against N.C. State could have been picked off. But Mauk's average drive was 41.1 yards.
Against N.C. State, the QB decision already was becoming a problem, as Grobe went with Mauk for the last drive of regulation and then Randolph in overtime. That's not a great way to build confidence for either player. After the game, perhaps for the first time, Grobe sounded unsure about which way he should be leaning.
Coordinators Under Microscope
Meanwhile, Dean Hood (defense) and Steed Lobotzke (offense) are becoming regular targets for unhappy Wake Forest fans.
For Hood, it's nothing new. He's never been able to put together a scheme to keep Wake from being one of the league's worst defenses, and lack of talent and depth no longer can be an excuse. The Demon Deacons have made some big strides defensively this fall with their more traditional 4-3-4 look, but that hasn't saved Hood from criticism when things go wrong.
Hood's pass defense, in particular, has been taking most of the heat. His backs play way off receivers, he can't get pressure on quarterbacks, and he makes some strange decisions. Against N.C. State, perhaps scared by an injury to star cornerback Eric King, he backed off the blitz for most of the second half, despite Jay Davis' inexperience. In return, Davis picked apart the Wake secondary. With a more aggressive scheme in the first half, the Deacons held State to six-of-13 passing for 34 yards, with an interception and a sack.
Lobotzke isn't as used to criticism from fans (just opposing coaches who don't like some of the Deacs' blocking habits), and he's in an odd position.
Opponents and the media often hold him up when they talk about Wake's "innovative" offense. Yet while the scheme can be innovative, the play-calling often becomes derivative the kind where if the fans and media can tell you what's coming, the opposition certainly isn't going to be fooled.
Third-Quarter Statistics Worrisome
For many, the Deacons' problems in the third quarter tie directly into Lobotzke's play-calling. While other reasons might exist, statistics bear out Wake's third-quarter woes.
In 2002, when Wake went to a bowl game, the Deacons won the third quarter 109-85 under offensive coordinator Troy Calhoun, who left for the NFL after the season. Under Lobotzke last fall and through five games this year, the Deacons have lost the third quarter 117-70. They've won the other three quarters by a 330-287 margin.
The last good third quarter was in the Clemson victory last season. In the final three games of 2003 and the big three this fall, Wake was outscored 48-10 in the third quarter. The Deacons' only touchdown "drive" was a one-play, 74-yard run by Barclay against Maryland.
In those games, the Deacons had 23 third-quarter drives, averaging 18.5 yards. In those drives, they averaged 3.6 yards a play, compared to 5.9 a play on all other drives. Wake also turned the ball over five times in those third quarters, compared to four times in the other 18 quarters.
Whether Lobotzke doesn't make good halftime adjustments or his play-calling is too conservative isn't clear, but the third-quarter doldrums certainly are getting to be a habit.
In the end, many outside observers would look at Wake's injuries, lack of star recruits, lack of outstanding facilities and other disadvantages and wonder how it can even compete in the ACC this season. But Grobe is reaping what he's sown: Just competing no longer is enough in Winston-Salem.