November 6, 2007
WINSTON-SALEM For most of his career at Wake Forest, Jim Grobe has enjoyed a good relationship with Wake's fan base.
Sure, folks have grumbled at times, and some questions started to arise in 2005 when Wake was struggling. But remember, this program had six winning seasons in the 30 before Grobe arrived. So when you produce four winning seasons in your first seven, as Grobe will have done with one more victory this year, the relationship is pretty solid.
However, the one consistent area of criticism that continues to pop up at various times is Grobe's tendency to stay conservative on offense. Grobe and his offensive coordinators originally Troy Calhoun and now Steed Lobotzke built Wake into a very successful running team, using zone blocking and a number of tweaks, such as the orbit sweeps. Grobe loves the run because so few things can go wrong, and that's a key when you're trying to pull the upset, as Wake often is.
But the very thing that has helped carry the program can become a yoke when Wake goes to it too often.
Some moments stand out more than others. The loss to Purdue in 2003 had a run call on fourth-down late in the game that galvanized criticism. Last year's loss to Clemson, though dominated by the Gaines Adams' fumble return, featured some very conservative play-calling by Wake in the second half.
In that case, Grobe even admitted the problem.
"That's my fault," Grobe said. "In hindsight, when you play a team as talented as Clemson, you've got to take advantage of your opportunities. So I just played it too close to the belt, and that was my decision."
After Wake's loss to Virginia on Nov. 3, the cries were heard again.
A week earlier, N.C. State had thrown for 347 yards against Virginia. In the first half against Virginia, Wake threw nine passes for 30 yards. On its first drive, the Deacons had a second down on the Virginia 28, and they called four straight running plays not gaining more than 5 yards on any of them. They threw incomplete on third down and settled for a field goal.
On four other first-half drives, the Deacons ran on the first two plays, then tried to pass on third down and failed, forcing them to punt. On two other first-half drives, Wake took possession in Virginia territory. The first time, at the Virginia 30, Wake completed two of three passes for 19 yards on the drive, but the running game couldn't produce and Wake settled for a field goal. The second time, at the Virginia 28, Wake ran, tried a short pass, then another run before missing a field goal.
Even though Wake opened it up some in the second half, the questions arose again in the fourth quarter. Up 16-10 with 8:32 remaining, Wake got the ball at its own 6. The Deacons ran it three times into the line and punted. Virginia responded by driving for the go-ahead touchdown.
Then on the final drive, quarterback Riley Skinner completed four passes for 47 yards, but with the clock stopped and 37 seconds left, Grobe chose to go conservative again from the Virginia 33. He ran twice for 3 yards, setting up Sam Swank's missed field goal.
After the game, Grobe did acknowledge the issue, at least in the first half.
"We should have thrown more in the first half," Grobe said. "We kept hunting and pecking and hoping to find a run that would be good to us. We just didn't have much success doing it.
"If we had to do it over, we'd probably come out and throw a lot more on first down. We did a lot more of that in the second half."
Still, the Deacons ran 37 times on first and second downs, compared to 16 passes. That included running 12 out of 19 times they faced second down and 7 or more yards.
Grobe did not apologize for staying conservative at the end.
"For most guys, getting a little bit closer would have made it easier," Grobe said, "but the downside was you could throw an interception or you could take a sack that would take you out of field goal range."
Grobe's desire to cut down on mistakes is admirable, and Wake has consistently won the turnover battle in his tenure. However, it appears at times that Grobe and his staff forget some things, such as the fact that Wake doesn't have to play perfect any more. These aren't the Deacons who were always out-manned and were looking to pull the upset. Most of the time now, Wake has the talent to match up and to make up for mistakes. Grobe can afford to take more chances.
In addition, he has a quarterback who can do the job. Skinner is ridiculously efficient, and he knows how to slide in the pocket to avoid sacks. He's completed 69 percent of his passes for his career and 73 percent this year. Although he's thrown more interceptions this season, he's warmed up as the season progressed, throwing only one in the stretch against Navy, UNC and Virginia. He's thrown 15 in 21 career games.
Grobe and his staff need to appreciate how special Skinner's talent is and feel free to turn him loose more often.
After all, if he throws well, it will open up the field for their favorite thing: the running game.
JORDAN WILLIAMS GETS HIS SHOT
One of the factors that has caused some issue with the passing game this season has been the receiving corps. After Kenny Moore, Wake has struggled to find people to make plays.
That's why Grobe made a rare move for him and played true freshman Jordan Williams, a 6-3, 180-pounder from Jacksonville, Fla. The move was even more surprising because he activated him midway through the season.
Grobe put Williams in the rotation against Navy after redshirt freshman Marshall Williams was lost for the season after surgery on a high-ankle sprain. In addition, Wake wanted to move senior Kevin Marion into a less prominent role after a series of drops, and players like Chip Brinkman and Demir Boldin had not stepped forward.
"We thought long and hard," Grobe said. "You know how we are. Once we play (a freshman) there's no turning back. He's going to play. That's what we had to resolve. If he could get the last six games of the season and play half the reps, not too many true freshmen get the chance to play that many reps in a whole season."
Early on, Williams has seen those reps, but he hasn't translated them into results. In his first two games, Williams did not have a catch. He broke through against Virginia with four catches, although only for 18 yards.
"I would not like to go through the five games with Jordan not catching a pass," Grobe said. "We didn't bring him up (from the scout squad) to block. We brought him up to go catch the football."
Still, Grobe said that it's not the quantity but the quality of play that matters.
"We're not that concerned with catches," Grobe said. "What we're concerned with is that we have guys who can make plays if they're there.
"Jordan Williams has the ability to do some really cool stuff, to catch the ball and running with it after he catches it. He's very athletic, very talented. But we only want to throw it to him if we've got an opening."
Grobe hopes this turns out better than the last time he played a wide receiver as a true freshman. Looking for a speedy spark, Grobe played Chris Davis in 2002. Davis didn't produce, catching five passes and running five times, and he didn't help the return game as Grobe hoped, returning 10 kickoffs for a 15.8-yard average.
Though Wake hoped he would replace multi-talented Fabian Davis, Chris Davis never developed into a great player. Still, if Grobe hadn't wasted his freshman season, Davis would have been available to help the Deacons last year when Kenny Moore was moved to running back and was injured.