Wake’s rushing attack needs spark
By Joedy McCreary
WINSTON-SALEM ó For a program built on a foundation of patience, Wake Forest has turned out a remarkable number of impact first-year players.
The past two ACC rookies of the year have come from Jim Grobe’s team. Now the No. 16 Demon Deacons hope redshirt freshman running back Brandon Pendergrass can make it three in a row.
But for that to happen, the ACC’s last remaining unbeaten team must do a better job to establish its surprisingly struggling ground game, starting this week at Navy.
“It’s a matter of time before we come out and we have a breakout game as a running back unit (to) show everybody that we can run,” Pendergrass said. “They can back up and start playing the run and (Wake Forest will) have more room to pass.”
Pendergrass’ first priority is winning games, not awards ó “I have not once thought about ACC rookie of the year,” he emphasized ó but individual attention has found its way to Winston-Salem as the victories piled up in recent years. Riley Skinner was named the ACC’s top rookie in 2006, and running back Josh Adams won the award last year while Pendergrass sat out as a redshirt.
“Guys are coming in ready in their redshirt years doing nothing but help build and build, getting stronger,” Pendergrass said. “So by the time you get to the field your redshirt freshman year, you feel like a sophomore. So that really helps give you an advantage already (being) prepared. They have an extra year to get prepared. It gives you a step ahead of the competition.”
He entered this season as a legitimate candidate to keep it in Winston-Salem, splitting time with Adams in the backfield. But while few doubted Pendergrass’ raw ability in preseason camp, the yards have become increasingly tougher to come by.
He’s coming off a miserable performance. He was held to an un-Wake-like minus-17 yards rushing on seven carries at Florida State, dropping his per-game average to just 22 yards.
Those struggles mirror the Demon Deacons’ woes in the run game. Wake Forest (3-0) has perennially led the ACC in rushing during Grobe’s first five seasons, but it now ranks 105th nationally on the ground. The team isn’t even averaging triple digits anymore, with its 98-yard average ranking between Florida Atlantic and Bowling Green.
The Demon Deacons have become increasingly reliant on Skinner’s accurate arm, but they couldn’t manage any touchdowns in six trips to the red zone last week in Tallahassee, settling for four field goals.
“Josh Adams ran the football with more authority (and) I felt like we actually had some better push up front with our offensive line,” Grobe said. “We actually got their guys moving around a little bit. … I saw a lot of good things offensively, and I think our guys, if they’ll continue to improve, I just got a better feeling about (it). We had opportunities. We just didn’t take advantage of them.”
Indeed, in recent weeks Grobe lamented the lack of rushing production while maintaining confidence that the ground game will come around again, and his top rookie shares that optimism.
If that happens, Pendergrass would vault back into contention for the league’s top-rookie award because there have been no clear-cut favorites through four weeks. Virginia Tech’s Darren Evans is the only freshman in the ACC’s top 10 in rushing, and North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson is injured once again.
So while this clearly isn’t the run-dominated Wake Forest program that made Chris Barclay the ACC’s offensive player of the year in 2005 and first caught Pendergrass’ attention, he’s counting on the Demon Deacons eventually getting back to doing what they’ve done best.
“When I first started paying attention to Wake, it was the Chris Barclay era ó every game I saw was Chris Barclay running for a touchdown,” Pendergrass said. “So when I saw Wake Forest, it was a team that’s going to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball. And we still do run the ball a lot, but times have changed. Now everybody’s playing on the run, and the pass is starting to open up.”