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Early Wake-Up Call

Helped by a soft September schedule, Wake Forest is 5-0 for only the third time

October 07, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Wake up, Wake Forest!

Five games into the college football season, you're not supposed to be the last remaining unbeaten team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That's never happened before, at any point in any season.

You've taken advantage of a cupcake schedule, sure, but you're one victory away from only the second 6-0 start in school history and the first since 1944, when a team coached by D.C. "Peahead" Walker won its first seven games. Only twice previously had you ever reached 5-0, the last time in 1987.

But after your September to remember -- you'd never before won five games in a month -- you rank among the national statistical leaders in defense.

You haven't played a game in October, yet already you've surpassed the victory total from 67 of your previous 103 seasons.

Pollsters, perhaps noting your history and your schedule, have barely taken notice. You're the only unbeaten team not ranked in the top 25, but wouldn't your name seem out of place there anyway?

Other than that one week in September 2003, when you were 2-0 and ranked 20th before losing to Purdue, you haven't appeared in the top 25 since 1992. It has been 36 years since you won your only ACC championship.

You, Demon Deacons, have never reached the top 10.

But Coach Jim Grobe, 31-32 in five-plus seasons since taking over the program in December 2000, might have you pointed in that direction.

Or, as the former Ohio University coach has said more than once, "When people used to see Wake Forest on the schedule, they used a pen to mark down a 'W.' We're at the point now where we at least make them use a pencil."

Your opponent today, 15th-ranked Clemson, is heavily favored to ink the first 'L' into your record. The Tigers, whose only loss in five games was to 25th-ranked Boston College in double overtime, might be the ACC's best team.

And your record against top-25 opponents is 16-98-1.

But you're playing at home in Winston-Salem, N.C., where you defeated Clemson three years ago, 45-17, and again last season, 31-27. A standing-room-only crowd in 31,500-seat Groves Stadium, the smallest facility in Division I-A football, has been asked to come dressed all in black and to sharply increase the Demon Deacons decibel level in trying to help you make it three straight over the Tigers.

Your fans already have witnessed your great resiliency.

Your fastest start in 19 years is all the more surprising because your starting quarterback, Benjamin Mauk, suffered season-ending arm and shoulder injuries in a season-opening 20-10 victory over Syracuse.

His replacement, redshirt freshman Riley Skinner, wasn't expected to play much this season but led a game-winning drive against Duke in his first start. Skinner has not passed enough to officially rank among the national or ACC statistical leaders, but his 65.3% completion rate would rank first in the conference and his 146.7 passer rating would rank second.

Skinner, who has thrown for two touchdowns, has not had a pass intercepted. According to Wake Forest, only two other major college starting quarterbacks, Nate Davis of Ball State and Drew Willy of Buffalo, can say the same.

"He's been taking care of the ball, making the right reads," linebacker Jon Abbate said of his teammate. "He's done a great job of just being consistent."

You're also without your top rusher, tailback Micah Andrews, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 24-13 victory over Connecticut.

Still, you slipped through September unbeaten, even if you did need a last-second blocked field-goal attempt to beat winless Duke, a perennial ACC doormat.

You rank 16th nationally against the run. You rank ninth in scoring defense, 24th in total defense, and have given up only 10.6 points per game. You lead the ACC in sacks with 17, two more than you had all last season.

You say you're deeper and more talented than ever before.

"I think all of us who were recruited by this coaching staff definitely felt like this program was going to end up somewhere special," said Abbate, a junior who is your leading tackler for the third straight season. "I think that's why we're successful now -- because we've got so many guys believing in it.

"This is just the beginning."

Or so you all hope.

The likes of Duke and Connecticut and Liberty, a Division I-AA team that was dispatched last week, 34-14, are behind you now.

Four of your last seven opponents are nationally ranked.

"Our fans are pumped up and our players are excited," Grobe told reporters this week. "Our players in particular are happy to be 5-0, but not satisfied to be 5-0. That makes me feel good."

Of course, another victory over Clemson would make your cautiously optimistic coach feel a whole lot better.

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jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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The best starts for Wake Forest, and how the Demon Deacons finished:

*--* YEAR START FINAL REC. 1944 7-0 8-1 1987 5-0 7-4 1950 4-0-1 6-1-2 1947 4-0 6-4

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Source: cfbdatawarehouse.com

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