Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wake Forest Guest Blogger: Chris Chase

Being a fan is funny. Take Chris Chase for example. The Redskins are No. 1 in his heart and he is watching his boyhood hero Joe Gibbs struggle like Wayne Fontes. But proving that God does listen, he is making it up to Chris by helping Wake to their best season in years. I've asked Chris back to guest blog and give us some insight into this week's pivotal game. Check out his blog for more on DC and Deacon sports.

1. Grobe's approach is well known, but this year's team seems a little more well rounded than past squads. The passing, while still at the bottom of the conference, looks a little more crisp than past years and they are completing passes at a high percentage. And unlike some games, it seem like this season, Wake can pass when they need to. Is it the QB, overall talent or a coaching adjustment?

Chris Chase: Wow, Bill, you’re not wasting any time here with an easy warm-up question are you? Must be a big game or something this weekend. Who would have thought that an early November game between our two alma maters would be more important than the VThug and The (Cell Block) U match-up. Of course, one could argue that three of the participants in those two games aren’t truly ACC teams, but since I’m a gracious guest on your blog, said person will not be me. One could make that point though. One, but not this one.

As for the Deacs offense, it’s tough to say why there seems to be more balance than in the past. A cursory look at the stats indicates that not much has changed as Wake still occupies their normal spot near the top of the ACC rushing leaders and in the cellar for passing. But a closer glance shows the Deacs are a surprising #1 in the conference in passing efficiency and also are the leaders in yards per pass, a complete reversal from years past when the Deacs would be near the bottom in both categories. It’s easy to say that difference has been due to redshirt Freshman QB Riley Skinner, who replaced injured starter Ben Mauk in the season opener, but there’s probably a little more to it than that.

Because of the loss of ACC Player of the Year Chris Barclay to graduation and the injury to his successor at RB, Micah Andrews, Jim Grobe didn’t have the backfield stud he’s been used to. This forced him to change his usual plan of trying to wear defenses down with an almost-maniacal dedication to the run. With De’Angelo Bryant and Kevin Harris sharing carries, Grobe hasn’t been as reliant on a single RB to grind it out on the ground, thus opening up the playbook a bit more. And because he can’t run with as much success, Grobe’s been forced to call pass plays. In Riley Skinner, he’s found an efficient quarterback not prone to making mistakes in key situations like Cory Randolph or Mauk.

The two-back system also is a plus. Barclay had over 230 carries per season in his last three years at Wake and was likely gassed at the end of games when Grobe would almost hand him the ball exclusively. Now Grobe has two guys to share duties.

2. Every ACC game, including Duke and UNC, has been close. What's the deal? Is this team getting lucky. Are they as good as their record?

Chris Chase: In a word, no. It’s easy for the Deacs to look back on the Clemson game (when they had a 17-3 4th quarter lead) and think, “damn, we should be 8-0,” but playing that game would be like opening up a Pandora’s Box of what-ifs.
What-if Wake’s backup safety hadn’t blocked a potentially game-winning field goal by Duke in the game’s final seconds? What-if Connecticut kicker Matt Nuzie hadn’t missed an extra-point and a go-ahead field goal of his own? What-if Wake kicker Sam Swank had missed one of his three 50-yard+ field goals against N.C. State? Or what-if Josh Gattis hadn’t been able to keep hold of a game-winning interception in that same game when the Wolfpack were driving for the winning score?

And finally, what-if, as time expired, UNC QB Joe Dailey had thrown the ball to his own man in the end zone instead of to Wake’s Jon Abbate last weekend in Chapel Hill?
Sure, Wake Forest could easily be 8-0, but they could just as easily be 3-5. I wouldn’t call it luck since the Deacs have made the plays when it has counted most. Instead they’ve just been… Fortunate. Yes, let’s go with that. And, in football, that’s really all that matters. There isn’t a normalization of statistics in a 12-game season like there is in baseball. If Wake played the same eight-game stretch 100 different times, 7-1 would probably be the best record they’d have. They’d probably average 4-4 or, optimistically, 5-3. But this is of no consequence to the team. They’re a deserving 7-1 and shouldn’t be lightly regarded by any school, no matter their strength.

This Deacs squad reminds me of the 2001 Chicago Bears; an above-average team making enough plays to give-off the appearance of a great one. This isn’t to say the Deacs can’t compete against the upper-echelon teams in the ACC (their near-miss against Clemson should prove this), but there’s no way they’re the 22nd best team in the country either.

3. Given how the last 3 minutes of last year's game went, I expect BC to come out passing. Who is a difference maker on defense who might foil that idea?

Chris Chase: Earlier this week, safety Josh Gattis became the first repeat winner of the ACC’s Defensive Back of the Week award this season. So he’s a guy to watch. (When did they start rewarding the best defensive back on a weekly basis anyway? Aren’t we getting a bit too specialized here? What’s next, a prize for ACC Linebacker of the Week: Bantemweight Division or ACC Punt Return Coverage Player of the Game?)

The aforementioned Abbate is also fairly beastly at linebacker. People forget he was a member of the Freshman All-American team two seasons ago but was slowed down by injuries last year as a sophomore. This season, Abbate leads the Deacs in tackles and has the lateral quickness that has been missing from Wake LBs in recent years.
The key to this game might lie in the special teams though. Sam Swank is continuing the tradition of great kicking specialists at Wake, handling both the punting and kicking duties. If it comes down to his foot, Wake Forest would be in good hands. I swear that made sense when I first wrote it.

4. Finally, given our recent history, I think this is going down to the wire. I still think BC will pull it out. What's your prediction?

Chris Chase: When you asked me to write a little preview of the Deacs this summer, I never would have predicted that this game would be played with so much on the line.
Wake’s football futility has been well-documented. They haven’t been to a bowl game since 1999 and hadn’t been ranked for three consecutive weeks since 1987. Saturday’s match-up is the first meeting at Groves Stadium between ranked teams since 1979.
With the 7-1 record it’s easy to forget that, at the beginning of the year, any Wake Forest fan would have taken seven wins and the bowl bid it brings without blinking. Now, we’re getting spoiled and want to do the unthinkable; play in the ACC Championship Game. It’s not gonna happen.
The Deacs can hang with Boston College but, in the end, your Eagles’ athleticism and experience will win out. Riley Skinner has been great this season, but he has yet to play from behind. In front of the most excited Wake crowd in history (which, FYI, isn’t saying much) and a national TV audience, don’t be surprised if Skinner gets rattled if put in an early hole. From there, it could get ugly. I’ll be praying for a win, but won’t be disappointed with a loss. After all, 7-2 is a whole lot better than 3-5.

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