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October 27, 2008

Revamped offense falters at Miami

If the Wake Forest offense had been wearing generic uniforms on Saturday, no one would have guessed it was the Demon Deacons on the field. A team that had been throwing the ball nearly 40 times a game threw only 8 passes. The same team, ranked 111 in the nation in rushing yards, ran the ball 52 times, including 24 straight to start the game. But the uniforms made it clear; this was the Wake Forest Demon Deacon offense, and despite a fast start the wholesale changes were not enough to earn a win against the Miami Hurricanes.

This revamped offense started the game with the ball and went on a 10 play, 66 yard rushing drive to take an early 7-0 lead. It was only Wake's second touchdown in ACC play, and it appeared the Demon Deacons had found a rushing offense to complement an already successful passing game.

Appearances can be deceiving, as the rush was not used to compliment the passing game, but rather to replace it. It did not take too long for Miami to adjust to the new strategy, and the Wake Forest offense struggled for the rest of the game. Despite entering halftime with a 10-3 lead, Wake could not accomplish much in the second half as Miami scored 13 unanswered points to beat Wake Forest 16-10.

The loss moved the Demon Deacons to 4-3 overall and 2-2 in ACC play, while Miami improved to 5-2 overall, 2-2 in conference.

The Deacon defense played another stellar game, holding the Hurricanes below 300 yards of total offense and only allowing one touchdown. They forced two turnovers on downs and had several big stops, including a crucial three and out with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

Stanley Arnoux led the defense with 11 tackles, and Aaron Curry spent plenty of time in the Hurricane backfield, with three tackles for loss and one big sack of Miami quarterback Robert Marve. Alphonso Smith had an excellent day in the secondary, breaking up four passes, but both he and Curry had potential interceptions just slip out of their hands.

The majority of the "blame" for this loss once again falls on the offense, and it is pretty easy to criticize the coaching staff for the play calling and overall offensive strategy this week. The I-formation and run game were clearly effective early, but Miami did a good job adjusting after the first couple of drives while Jim Grobe and offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke refused to change their strategy.

The Demon Deacons couldn't have run more than about 10 different plays the entire game, which made things very predictable. Miami defensive players said as much after the game, and since they have the 20th ranked run defense in the nation, they adjusted quickly and all but halted the Deacons in their tracks.

Riley Skinner, widely considered one of the elite ACC quarterbacks, was reduced to handing the ball of all game long. Although at least three of the eight passes he made were basically uncatchable, it is difficult to blame him when he was never given the chance to develop any kind of rhythm. On multiple occasions Skinner looked visibly upset as he headed towards the sideline when yet another drive ended when a running play failed to pick up a first down.

The offensive line, in makeshift condition following Trey Bailey's ankle injury, played fairly well all things considered. They opened some holes for the run game, particularly early on, but struggled in their few opportunities to pass block, leading to a late turnover when Skinner fumbled on a hit from behind.

Joe Looney, making his first career start at Left guard, seemed as capable as any other Demon Deacon lineman, and Russel Nenon, who slid down to the center position after Bailey's injury, also played about as well as could be expected.

It is possible that Nenon's inexperience making shotgun snaps led to the decision to spend the entire game in the I-formation, however one would think that an entire week of practice could have given him enough experience to at least attempt a few plays out of the shotgun. Had this been tried, the coaches could have measured the shotgun's effectiveness in the game and made a decision from there.

Running Backs Josh Adams and Brandon Pendergrass were certainly given a chance to shine, and for the first time this season a Deacon back ran for over 100 yards. Adams finished the day with 111 yards, while Pendergrass had 52. Fullback Mike Rinfrette also contributed 30 yards on the ground.

On one of the day's three successful passing attempts, receiver D.J. Boldin caught a screen pass, evaded several tacklers, and gained 45 yards scampering up the left side line. Surprisingly, the Deacons never returned to this play, or any other like it, and Boldin ended the day with only the one catch. It was also the only catch by a receiver all day, as the other two completions went to Josh Adams and fullback Rich Belton.

Despite the promising start, the game will ultimately be viewed as a second consecutive failure, and the third in the last four outings. Wake Forest is still searching desperately for an offensive identity, and it does not appear that they found it on Saturday. The Demon Deacons have tried several very different things over the last several weeks and none have worked. It is unclear when, or even if, an effective, successful offense will be in place.

With Duke coming to Winston-Salem next weekend, Wake Forest approaches a make-or-break moment in their season. Put together 60 minutes of good football and hope remains for the rest of the season. A third straight loss, to the Blue Devils no less, and hope will be all but gone.


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