September 16, 2002
WINSTON-SALEM - It's amazing what a difference a play or two can make.
Last year, Wake Forest opened its season with some shaky plays in the kicking game, but it got the stop on a late two-point conversion try by East Carolina and won 21-19. Wake then beat Appalachian State before losing its ACC opener to Maryland.
This year, the Deacons opened their season with some shaky plays in the kicking game, got stopped on a late two-point conversion and lost to Northern Illinois 42-41 in overtime. Wake then beat ECU before losing its ACC opener to N.C. State.
The difference between 2-1 and 1-2? On the field, negligible - a couple of plays either way. Off the field, palpable.
Here's what Wake sounded like after beating East Carolina in 2001, in coach Jim Grobe's first game:
It just feels so good to know we can win, defensive end Nate Bolling said. We've had talent for years, and now we can actually win. We can beat a top-notch ball team. I haven't stopped smiling since we left the field.
We were going to win that game, center Vince Azzolina said. We weren't going to let that one go through our fingers.
Note that both of those quotes came from senior leaders who are now gone.
Here's how Wake sounded after the Northern Illinois loss in 2002, a game that ended with Grobe essentially admitting that he had no faith in the kicking game and little faith in the defense:
It came down to making plays, senior receiver Fabian Davis said. When it was our turn to make plays, we didn't.
Here's how Wake sounded after beating East Carolina in the second game:
Basically, down the stretch, Grobe said, we were scared to death, to be honest with you.
Little things make a huge difference when you're operating on a thin talent line, as Wake Forest always does. Grobe knows it. He tried to remind his team about that all during the offseason.
That's the one thing we keep telling our players, Grobe said in April. We said, ëThink back guys. Nothing that we did was easy.' It's a tough, physical game. You've got to be a little bit lucky. You've got to stay healthy. The ball's screwed up. It bounces funny.
So far, the 2002 Deacons just don't seem quite as good as the 2001 squad. They don't seem to have more talent at any position, except perhaps running back. The secondary has some improved individuals but hasn't played as well without injured safety Obi Chukumah. They don't have the same confidence, perhaps because of how the season opened and perhaps because of the change in leadership. This team is very quiet, without Bolling, Ed Kargbo-Okorogie and others. They don't have the same depth (as they pay for a weak class in 1999), especially along the offensive line. They don't seem to have the same discipline.
And, of course, there's special teams. It's an often forgotten part of football, but those small plays have absolutely killed the Deacons early in the season. It's interesting to note that some ACC teams have a coordinator for special teams, just as they do for offense and defense, but Wake does not. Two ACC programs, Georgia Tech and Virginia, have assistant coaches solely for special teams. At Wake, assistant Billy Mitchell handles the kickers.
When examining the Deacons' special-teams failures - and there have been many - missed field goals are the most obvious. However, Wake's offense bears some of the responsibility in this area as well.
The Deacons have struggled to take full advantage of their opportunities, especially for a team that was plus-eight in turnovers after three games. Against ECU and N.C. State, the Deacons failed to score touchdowns on six of eight possessions inside the opponent's 30-yard line. On one of the times they did score, they had a big play down to the one-yard line, then simply had to punch it in.
Look for the Deacons to ask freshman Ryan Plackemeier to try to solve the kicking problem, but it sure would help if the offense could take some of the pressure off the young field-goal unit.
Offense Showing Fewer Options
Speaking of the offense, it seems less diverse than last year.
Wake has been more conservative in its use of the orbit motion, where the wide receiver comes around behind the backs. Although Fabian Davis had 12 carries in the first three games, the Deacons aren't using the look as much as a decoy as they did last year.
The Deacs aren't running as much option, either, largely because Anthony Young isn't part of the quarterback package, as he was early last year. But will Cory Randolph, a good option quarterback, be part of the package? Grobe gave Randolph his first action against N.C. State, and though Randolph wasn't overwhelming, Grobe sounded after the game very much like he would find more time for his young quarterback.
This is a difficult decision. MacPherson has a better arm than Randolph, and he's a veteran. He usually limits Wake's mistakes and knows how to run the no-huddle offense efficiently. And the Deacons' season is not over. Objective observers still would say they have a chance in most if not all of their games, save FSU.
But MacPherson also isn't a quarterback who makes defensive coordinators lose any sleep. Even Young, whose skills were not very refined, brought that element to the game.
Last year, ECU coach Steve Logan said about Wake's quarterback situation: I'm just telling you right now that Stevie Wonder could watch that film, and (the starter is) going to be Anthony Young. That cat can play.
Randolph brings some of those same skills to the table. He can provide another threat on the ground. More importantly, he needs seasoning for the future. But if you're trying to win games (which seem guaranteed to be close) this year, Randolph also is inexperienced in the offense and doesn't provide much of a passing threat.
Besides, Randolph isn't even guaranteed to be the quarterback of the future. Expect freshmen Zac Taylor and Nate Morton to push for the starting job next season, as they may offer more well-rounded options for the position in the long run.
Important To Keep Momentum
Looking at the big picture, this season - and more importantly, how the next few games play out - could be critical to the Deacons' future.
Last year, Grobe was able to use the bounce provided by his arrival, the turnaround on the field and the improvement in facilities to lure one of Wake's better recruiting classes in recent memory. So far, this season appears to be robbing the program of a lot of that bounce. Same old Wake Forest football has been heard a few times already.
If Grobe and recruiting coordinator Ray McCartney are unable to sustain their momentum, that spells doom for the program. Wake will lose a tremendous amount in its senior class, which already makes next season questionable unless those young players can step up as redshirt freshmen. That could mean two poor seasons back-to-back, which is very difficult to dig out of in major college football.
But if the Deacons can hold their heads above water this season, it could do enough to bring in another quality class. Then, even if next year isn't a great one on the field, Grobe may have built enough of a foundation to survive.