Ron Morris

Morris: A Forest fable


ENOUGH OF THIS talk that Wake Forest always ruins Tommy Bowden’s breakfast, always ties Clemson in knots and always plays the role of Achilles heel to the Tigers’ ACC championship hopes.

None of it is true.

For the record, only twice in nine meetings has Bowden eaten breakfast with little sleep following a loss to Wake Forest. As recent as 2007, Clemson coasted to a 34-point victory against Wake Forest. Only Clemson’s 2005 loss to Wake Forest probably cost the Tigers a crack at the ACC championship.

This, of course, does not mean Clemson’s showdown on Thursday against No. 21 Wake Forest will result in another romp for the Tigers. Far from it. If recent history tells us anything, it is that Clemson and Wake Forest play tight games ... and Clemson usually wins.

“It’s been a hard 7-2. It’s hard,” Bowden said Monday of his record against Wake Forest. “But since coach (Jim) Grobe has been there, they’ve given most people fits.”

That is precisely the point. Grobe has built a Wake Forest program that is a force within the ACC. Clemson is not alone in having difficulty winning games against Wake Forest, particularly the past three seasons.

Before Grobe arrived in Winston-Salem eight seasons ago, Wake Forest was an ACC patsy. In the 58 seasons prior to Grobe, Wake Forest managed 10 winning records and one league championship.

“When I first got here, I didn’t think they were a real good team,” said Clemson senior running back James Davis. “I thought they were a small school that mostly focused on academics.”

Redshirt senior receiver Aaron Kelly echoed Davis’ sentiments: “They used to be kind of like the doormat, maybe a little bit better than Duke.”

That generally is the way Clemson has treated Wake Forest over the years. Clemson leads the series 56-16 with one tie. Included in those wins was an 82-24 debacle in 1981, one more step in Clemson’s march to the national championship.

Grobe slowly has built Wake Forest to respectability. The Demon Deacons became a national sensation in 2006 when they won the ACC championship, played in the Orange Bowl and finished with an 11-3 record. Then the program shed its Cinderella label a season ago by going 9-4.

The redshirt is Grobe’s formula for success. With the backing of the Wake Forest administration, Grobe began eight seasons ago to redshirt entire classes of freshmen. It is a strategy that would not work at Clemson, Bowden said, because its fan base would not permit three consecutive losing seasons as Grobe and Wake Forest endured from 2003 through 2005.

Now, the wholesale redshirting is paying dividends. Among its 22 starters on Thursday, Wake Forest will employ one sixth-year graduate, nine fifth-year seniors and 10 fourth-year juniors. By comparison, Clemson will send out two fifth-year seniors and four fourth-year juniors.

Wake Forest might never recruit the same quality of athlete as Clemson, but experience has become the great equalizer for the Demon Deacons. With that leveling of the playing field has come a change in Wake Forest’s reputation.

“Since I’ve been here, they’ve probably been the hardest team we’ve played,” Davis said. “They’ve really been good. My opinion has definitely changed about them.”

Again, Kelly concurs.

“Wake Forest has come a long way. They are a great program,” he said. “They’ve won an ACC championship. They’ve been competing for it every year. They always seem to play Clemson tough.”

No doubt. Five of Clemson’s seven wins against Wake Forest under Bowden have been decided by 10 points or less. The Tigers won 12-3 in 1999, 21-14 in 2001, 37-30 in double overtime in 2004 and 27-17 in 2006.

Prior to 2006, opponents such as Clemson were forced to prepare for a Wake Forest team that ran an unusual offense with unorthodox blocking schemes. It was Grobe’s way of trying to level the talent with superior opponents until his redshirting program kicked in.

“It’s still difficult, but it’s different preparation,” Bowden said of Wake Forest’s switch to a pass-happy offense over the past three seasons. “They’ve got a better quality of player now, so your technique better be pretty sound as far as covering their skill guys. The preparation is still the same. It’s just a little bit different.”

Now Wake Forest makes life difficult for every opponent, not just Clemson. So, should you encounter someone who continues to perpetuate the myth that Wake Forest has dominated Clemson in the recent past, inform the uninformed that Clemson is the only team to have beaten Wake Forest each of the past two seasons.

Should Clemson extend that streak to three, Bowden can sleep well and eat his breakfast peacefully come Friday.

Listen to Morris Tuesdays from 4-5 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.1 FM.