College Football: Wake arrives for Orange Bowl

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 4, 2007

Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The last time Wake Forest visited south Florida, the Demon Deacons weren’t even close to being competitive — they lost to Miami by 45 points.

That was two years ago. Now, the only thing more impressive than the team’s on-field turnaround is the change to the players’ frame of mind.

No. 15 Wake Forest (11-2) arrived Wednesday in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, where the Demon Deacons will practice for five days before the biggest game in school history — a matchup against No. 5 Louisville (11-1) in the Orange Bowl.

“They’re not going to hold our hands out here, and everyone on this team knows we came down here for one reason only,” safety Josh Gattis said after the team arrived in Fort Lauderdale. “It means nothing to get to the Orange Bowl if you don’t win it, and that’s been our focus for the past few weeks as we’ve been preparing.”

The players say their disastrous visit to South Beach two years ago marked the start of an attitude adjustment that’s now paying huge dividends.

“We’ve come a long ways. We’ve worked very hard ever since that game,” linebacker Aaron Curry said. “That season alone was not too good of a season, and a lot of things have changed. … Everybody’s attitude has changed throughout the whole program.”

This certainly isn’t the same Wake Forest program that was victimized by Brock Berlin’s four touchdown passes during a 52-7 loss to the Hurricanes on Nov. 20, 2004. The team went on to finish 4-7.

“It was a rough game, and to think about two years from (then) that we would be going to the Orange Bowl and playing in the Bowl Championship Series, it’s a huge swing of emotions going to Miami,” linebacker Jon Abbate said.

As recently as four months ago, Wake Forest was considered an afterthought in the super-sized Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Demon Deacons had never won more than eight games in a season, hadn’t won an ACC title since 1970 and were picked to finish last in their division.

Instead, they set a school record with 11 victories, shut out Florida State in Tallahassee for the first time in Bobby Bowden’s tenure there, clinched the Atlantic Division on the last day of the season and beat Georgia Tech in the ACC title game.

“It’s really no symbolism there — it’s a great thing just to see how far we’ve come,” cornerback Riley Swanson said. “I’ve marveled at the way we’ve come along. It was just a couple of years ago when we did lose 52-7 and now we’re a better team. We’ve come so far. … Everything we accomplished this year erased all the memories of the past.”