The Bloom Is Off
The Rose Bowl seemed far away after Northwestern lost to upstart Wake Forest
Carolina cuts loose
On the afternoon of Sept. 4, Northwestern coach Gary Barnett stood at the front of a packed banquet room in Chicago's Hotel Nikko. Before him were 250 boosters, their faces beaming with anticipation. A mere mention of his team's Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance last season would have probably been sufficient to prime the emotional pump, but Barnett wanted to try out some fresh material, so he spoke of the Wildcats' offense. He said he believed his unit had a chance to be as good as the 1994 Penn State offense, which led the Nittany Lions to a 12-0 record and supplied the '95 NFL draft with three of its top nine picks. That elicited hearty applause. Barnett then joked about his largely untested secondary, which he said was causing him "to sleep like a baby: I sleep for 15 minutes and then wake up crying." The crowd hooted, secure in the belief that this was a good line, nothing more.
But there was no laughter last Saturday night at Wake Forest when Demon Deacon wide receiver Desmond Clark leaped above Fred Wilkerson, one of the inexperienced defensive backs over whom Barnett had jokingly fretted. As Wilkerson, playing in place of suspended starter Hudhaifa Ismaeli, fell to the turf in the Northwestern end zone at Groves Stadium, Clark hung in the air an extra split second, the ball hitting him smack between his numbers. A point after and 51 ticks of the clock later, it was over: Wake Forest 28, Northwestern 27. No joke.
Who could have seen this coming? In coach Jim Caldwell's three years at Wake Forest, the Deacons had lost 27 of 34 games and failed to win a home game against an ACC opponent. Of the 44 players listed on the team's depth chart for the Northwestern game, 27 were freshmen or sophomores.
It hardly mattered. Led by the ornery running of John Lewis (97 yards and one TD), Wake Forest played the same opportunistic ball-control football that Northwestern had used to carve its path to the Rose Bowl. During their run to the roses the Wildcats turned the ball over just 12 times; on Saturday they lost the ball four times. In the first six minutes alone, Brian Musso fumbled a punt and quarterback Steve Schnur—who was picked off only six times last season—threw the first of his three interceptions, opening the door to a 10-0 Wake Forest lead. Asked if his team had taken the Deacons too lightly, a wan Barnett answered, "We had no reason to, but it feels like we did."
Caldwell has said that he hopes to make Wake a perennial ACC contender by the millennium. It is, in part, his patience that got him hired in December 1992. In 1981 Caldwell was the secondary coach under Dennis Green at Northwestern, which was in the throes of a Division I-A record-setting 34-game losing streak. In Evanston, Caldwell met Ron Wellman, who was then the Wildcats' baseball coach. Impressed by Caldwell's unruffled demeanor in the face of the football team's struggles, Wellman continued to track Caldwell's career after the young assistant moved to Colorado in 1982. In 1992 Wellman became Wake Forest's athletic director, and when Bill Dooley retired as the Deacons' football coach that fall, Wellman turned to Caldwell, making him the ACC's first black football coach.
Wellman has proved a crucial ally. At the end of last season he extended Caldwell's contract through 2000. His future more secure, Caldwell began to build the program for the long run. Freshmen, for example, are now routinely redshirted. "We probably could have won two or even three more games last year if we had suited up some of the freshmen," Caldwell says of a team that went 1-10. "But I wanted to keep these guys together to build a solid nucleus for the future, much as Northwestern has."
Despite this victory over the Wildcats and the previous week's 19-13 win over Appalachian State, Caldwell was making no other comparisons with Northwestern. As he sat in a tent that is serving as the team's temporary locker room while a field house is being built, Caldwell said, "We're nowhere close to where we want this program to be." He paused to sign an autograph that his 11-year-old daughter, Natalie, would deliver to a friend outside. "So far, though, things are looking...." He stopped in midsentence as more well-wishers descended on him. Outside, a small chorus had erupted into a chant, finishing Caldwell's thought: "Undefeated! Undefeated!"
More impressive, albeit less surprising, than Wake's victory was North Carolina's 27-10 drubbing of Syracuse, which entered the game ranked No. 9, at the Carrier Dome. The victory, the Tar Heels' first road win over a Top 10 team in 30 years, came less than 48 hours after Hurricane Fran swept through Chapel Hill and left several North Carolina players temporarily out of contact with their families. "A lot of kids know that their parents are safe," said coach Mack Brown, "but they are not sure they still have their homes." Brown's own home sustained extensive damage when a tree crashed into a bathroom.