September 6, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM Other than Florida State's matchup with Miami, Wake Forest drew the toughest starting assignment in the ACC this year, and it paid for that bad draw with an excruciating defeat.
The young Deacons didn't get a military academy or a Division I-AA team to open the season, as many of their league brethren did. Wake coach Jim Grobe made sure to mention that fact after the Deacs' loss at Clemson.
Instead, the Deacons got to go into one of the most hostile stadiums in the country, where every mistake they made was magnified and jeered, against a team that finished last season as the hottest team in the conference. The Deacs made plenty of mistakes against the Tigers, and they paid dearly for many of them.
Despite the team's youth and the difficult environment, it still was a surprise to see so many basic errors from a Grobe-coached bunch. All last season, Wake allowed one punt return for a score and had one punt blocked. Both of those disasters occurred in the first half of the opener. Wake was the second-least-penalized team in the league last season, but it was nabbed 13 times for 125 yards against Clemson.
Grobe's postgame assessment that most of those problems were fixable was right on target. Everyone expects that the Wake staff will make most of them disappear as the season goes along. But some other, familiar themes reappeared for the Deacons against the Tigers, and with those nobody can be so sure.
First, the "new-look" defense looked a lot like last season's, which was the second-worst in the ACC. The Deacons allowed 37 points, 27 in regulation, and for much of the game the only thing that slowed Clemson was the Tigers themselves. They missed a field goal, threw two interceptions on bad decisions and suffered through some strange play-calling in the second half.
Wake again failed to pressure the quarterback, despite its revamped, four-man defensive line. In the second half, the Deacons often resorted to the same plan as last year blitz, blitz, blitz. That worked until Clemson finally figured out how to attack it correctly, scoring on its last three possessions.
The biggest disappointment was Bryan Andrews, a redshirt sophomore defensive end who was one of the most-hyped recruits in Wake Forest history. A review of the game tape showed that Andrews was never a factor, even against a mediocre Clemson line.
Andrews, a linebacker in high school, played the majority of the game but really was involved in only five plays. Most of the time, he simply engaged the tackle and hovered around his position. While staying home is an important part of a defensive end's game, he also must be able to make some plays while doing it.
Andrews finished with two solo tackles against the Tigers, both after the opposing lineman had moved him several yards downfield. On one, the running back basically ran into Andrews. On the other, Andrews slipped back off the block for the tackle. He also posted two assists, both in similar styles to his tackles. On one, the back ran into a pile in Andrews' area, and the other came several yards downfield when Andrews brushed the back to slow him down.
That performance stood in sharp contrast to the play Wake received from redshirt freshman Matt Robinson and true freshman Jeremy Thompson. In just a few series at end, the pair combined for four tackles, including one for a loss (Thompson) and one across the field (Robinson). They consistently pushed their lineman backward or shed blocks to be in position to make plays. If those trends continue, expect to see a lot less of Andrews, who just doesn't appear to have the killer instinct that can be found in many of his teammates.
Another disappointment was the continuation of a long-time tradition: Wake defensive backs giving 10-yard cushions at the line, then backing off even more after the snap. The Deacons always have loved this soft zone under fourth-year coordinator Dean Hood, but it rarely works against teams that decide to attack it. Perhaps if his corners played up, quarterbacks couldn't make such quick decisions, and the Deacons actually might get some pressure.
Another problem in the defensive backfield against Clemson was senior cornerback Marcus McGruder. As previously reported, in the Sports Journal's analysis of big pass plays against Wake over the last two seasons, McGruder was the man beaten on most of them. Every time the Tigers needed a big play in the opener, they went right after McGruder, and most of the time they got what they needed.
Perhaps McGruder is a great practice player, because backup Riley Swanson appeared to outplay him all of last year and in the opener this season. Against Clemson, McGruder was beaten for a 47-yarder over the middle, on the key fourth-down touchdown, on the two-point conversion and on the opening play of overtime, when he was flagged for a pass-interference call.
Randolph Struggles; Mauk Looms
Without a doubt, the most analyzed part of this Wake Forest football season will be the quarterback battle.
Redshirt freshman Ben Mauk didn't give too much to analyze in the opener, completing a Hail Mary toss for an 85-yard touchdown, two quick outs and then throwing one away under pressure. His wild, jumping, extended post-TD celebration certainly was impressive, but it was impossible to get a thorough read on his skills.
On the other hand, redshirt junior Cory Randolph has given everyone a lot to look at recently, and most of it hasn't been very pretty. Through the final two games of 2003 and the opener this fall, Randolph completed 34 of 72 passing attempts for 309 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Yes, that's 309 yards total in three games.
While many observers criticize the lack of variety in Wake's passing game where are the tight ends, the throws across the middle, the receiver screens, etc.? those are simply terrible numbers for Randolph. On several occasions last year, players and coaches stated or implied that the team needed improved production at quarterback to thrive as a program, and Randolph fell short again versus Clemson.
Perhaps most importantly, Randolph got worse under pressure against the Tigers. While he spent much of the first half dodging defenders, he had more time in the second. Yet he really threw only two solid passes, one a quick out and the other a 10-yarder as he was about to be crushed by a blitz. Otherwise, he was awful, especially in overtime.
"When we got down to crunch time in the fourth quarter, we felt that was the time to have your experienced quarterback on the field," Grobe said. "As we go through the season, we won't mind at all having Ben out there, but we felt in this environment we were probably a little bit better having Cory out there, because he's been in that situation before."
Unfortunately for the Deacs, Randolph hardly looked as if he had been there. He badly missed all four passes he threw in OT, including one to a wide-open Willie Idlette on the final play. That kind of showing can cause teammates to lose faith, even subconsciously, and Randolph never has been an electrifying emotional force.
Over the next few games, don't just look at the numbers for Mauk and Randolph. Check to see who galvanizes the team around him, as good quarterbacks do.