By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007
When the Wake Forest football team lost its first two games this season, a nasty thought crept into players' minds: What if all those critics who decried the Demon Deacons as flukes or frauds were right?
Wake Forest stunned traditional powerhouses last season by winning the Atlantic Coast Conference championship, but the triumph did little to change the perception of the program. It was still "little old Wake Forest," center Steve Justice said during the preseason of the smallest school in the six Bowl Championship Series conferences. This season would not only be a title defense for the Demon Deacons, but also a chance to validate their magical 2006 run.
After two games, even some of the Demon Deacons doubted they could do so. But playing outside of the national spotlight, Wake Forest has quietly climbed back into the ACC championship picture by winning six straight. As the Demon Deacons prepare to play Virginia at noon today, this season is suddenly beginning to feel an awful lot like last season.
"We're coming through and beating some of the teams a lot of people didn't think we'd beat, or a lot of teams we didn't think we'd beat, looking at their talent," Justice said. "You look back and you're like, 'This is a pretty good year already.' "
It could become even better, but the Demon Deacons need help from Boston College's opponents. Wake Forest, at 4-1 in the ACC, is only a half-game behind 4-0 BC in the Atlantic Division. But because the Eagles defeated Wake Forest in the season opener, the Demon Deacons must finish with a better record to win the division and return to the ACC title game. Wake Forest, at minimum, needs BC to stumble twice in its final four games.
The turnaround garnered respect around the conference and served notice that last season was not a "one-shot wonder," Justice said. Still, despite the fact that the Demon Deacons are 11-3 in their past 14 conference games, their rivals still don't know quite what to make of them.
"I don't think they still think of us as the old Wake Forest, just pretty much the cupcake," defensive end Jeremy Thompson said. "And they don't think of us as the big, bad Wake Forest that won the ACC last year. Teams have respect for us now because we won games. But then again, most of the players on our team, other teams didn't want. They're not looking at us like we're intimidating."
Catching BC may be improbable, but so is how Wake Forest arrived at 6-2. Trailing Maryland 24-3 late in the third quarter, things looked bleak for the Demon Deacons. An embarrassing home loss. A 1-3 record. An 0-2 start in a conference they had won the previous season.
Wake Forest transformed its season with one play. Cornerback Alphonso Smith intercepted a pass in the end zone and returned it for a 100-yard touchdown. A scoring pass with three seconds remaining sent the game to overtime, where Wake Forest won, 31-24. Players discovered last season's success didn't have to be an albatross; it could be a reference point.
"I don't think we would have been able to do that if we didn't have the experience of last year," Thompson said. "We're drawing from that experience."
Wake Forest often receives credit for precise execution and a team-as-family attitude, but emphasizing its pluck may do a disservice to the Demon Deacons' athleticism. Virginia linebacker Jon Copper called Wake Forest "probably the fastest team we've played." Kick returner Kevin Marion, who weighs 168 pounds, ran on the Wake Forest 4x100 relay team that won the ACC championship, and he also set the school record in the long jump.
Wake Forest Coach Jim Grobe doesn't recruit speedy players as much as he cultivates them. He studies film of players with quickness who he thinks will train hard enough to become faster. Then he redshirts nearly every player, giving them more time to improve their speed.
The understated style rarely invites attention, and Wake Forest receives little for a defending champion that has played its way back into contention.
"I think we kind of like that," Thompson said.