By Brad Locke | NEMS Daily Journal
Wake Forest was not expected to have this good of a season, and the frustrating thing for Jim Grobe is, it could have been so much better.
The media predicted a last-place finish in the ACC Atlantic Division, with Wake Forest receiving the fewest votes of any team, and that was understandable. The Demon Deacons were to be led by a sophomore quarterback, Tanner Price, who struggled his first year in the offense, and youth dotted the lineup.
Yet Wake went 6-6 overall, 5-3 in league play to tie for second in its division. It was less than two quarters away from winning a berth in the ACC title game but saw a 14-point lead at Clemson slip away.
“Most people did not think we could get into a bowl game this year,” said Grobe, in his 11th year as head coach. “They thought it would be at least another year before we could get back to one.”
This is Wake Forest’s first bowl game in three years, and the Demon Deacons are 3-1 in bowls under Grobe, who led them to the ACC championship and an Orange Bowl berth in 2006.
Wake showed early on that it would be tough to deal with, taking Syracuse into overtime before losing, 36-29, in the season opener. That was the beginning of a frustrating trend, as three of Wake’s losses came after it held double-digit leads.
Defense and youth were mostly to blame for those collapses, Grobe said.
“On the road in the opener’s probably the most frustrating thing, because you know if you can steal one on the road up at Syracuse, you know you’re off and running,” he said. “We’ve had three months to look on that one, so that one probably sticks with you the most.”
Three of Wake Forest’s losses were by seven or fewer points. Grobe is hoping those kind of games will pay dividends down the line in the mental toughness category.
Specifically, he hopes it helps Dec. 30, when Wake Forest meets Mississippi State (6-6) in the Music City Bowl in Nashville. He’s not yet watched much tape, but Grobe has an idea of what to expect from MSU.
“I’ve seen them a couple of times on TV, and I know they’re really physical, play great defense. … With the teams they play against, you look at a 6-6 Mississippi State team, I think if they played some other teams’ schedules they might be undefeated.”
The challenge for Grobe’s offense will be the same as it’s been all season: Finding a balance between run and pass. Price, the QB, has been much improved, and Grobe has been forced to employ a pass-heavy scheme.
Of Wake Forest’s total offense, 68.3 percent has come through the air. Price has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,803 yards, 20 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Senior Brandon Pendergrass is the leading rusher with 750 yards and eight TDs.
Wake has been a running team in the past. It led the ACC in rushing in 2005. But with strict academic standards and Grobe’s emphasis on strong character, it’s a thin talent pool from which he’s drawing.
“We kind of have to structure our offense and defense based on the talent we bring in,” Grobe said, “because we can’t specifically say, we want this type of quarterback or this type of receiver, or whatever.”
Price is developing into a solid quarterback and is following a similar path as the one taken by his predecessor, Riley Skinner, who also became the starter as a freshman.
“He’s more accurate than he was as a freshman, and he’s just a kid that’s getting better all the time,” Grobe said. “He’s not as good as he can be. When he’s playing good, we’ve got a shot.”