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One day in early December, the main quad at Wake Forest was buried under a blizzard of toilet paper, the morning-after remnants of a giddy celebration of the Demon Deacons' first ACC championship in 36 years. Under other circumstances the long strands of white dangling from the trees might have suggested vandalism, but those who were there will tell you that they looked soft and lovely, like a gentle snowfall. In that way the scene was the perfect symbol of Wake Forest's season, a thing of quiet beauty. � Other teams commanded more attention in 2006.
Ohio State and Michigan turned back all comers, on their way toward a No. 1 versus No. 2 confrontation that turned out to be a classic. Rutgers's remarkable rise was a noisy, Jersey thing that made a star of the Scarlet Knights' young coach, Greg Schiano. In Wake's conference, the ACC, Miami made headlines with thuggery (an ugly brawl with Florida International) and tragedy (the murder of defensive end Bryan Pata). At no point in the season were the Demon Deacons at the center of the college football discussion. "Every week it seemed like people were talking about the BCS, or the SEC, or Ohio State-- Michigan," says linebacker Jon Abbate, Wake's co-captain and defensive leader. "And then it would be like, 'By the way, Wake Forest won again.' That was fine with us."
Wake Forest didn't have a Heisman Trophy candidate or a big-name coach on the sideline. The game that won the Demon Deacons the ACC championship was a taut but unspectacular 9--6 victory over Georgia Tech. Their key player that day might have been their kicker-punter, Sam Swank. Yet here is Wake, having sneaked up like an overnight snowfall, suddenly 11--2 and ranked 15th in the country. College football offered no better story in 2006 than the Demon Deacons' unexpected transformation, which has them headed to their first Orange Bowl, against No. 5 Louisville, only the seventh bowl game in the 105-year history of the program. Their emergence is proof that the sport doesn't belong solely to the football factories; that a small, private university (Rice and Tulsa are the only Division I-A schools with fewer students than Wake's 4,321 undergraduates) can make a major national impact.
At the beginning of the year there was no reason to suspect that Wake students would make a January trip to Miami for anything other than a between-semesters vacation. The Deacons were picked to finish last in the ACC's Atlantic Division, which wasn't surprising, since they'd never won more than eight games in a season, and no one was particularly impressed that 18 starters were returning to a team coming off consecutive 4--7 finishes. Achieving the program's first winning season since 2002 would have seemed miraculous. More than that was pure fantasy.
Fantasizing about Wake Forest football has always been rare, even on and around the school's campus in Winston-Salem, N.C. Wake operates in the orbit--some would say the shadow--of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, and the Demon Deacons' fan base has never been especially large or passionate. Folks in Winston-Salem are just as likely to root for one of the three Tobacco Road schools as they are for the one in their own backyard. Former Wake basketball coach Dave Odom wasn't far off when he said that in the state of North Carolina, Wake Forest is everyone's second-favorite team.
Despite Wake's years of being an ACC doormat--before this season the Deacons hadn't finished above .500 in conference play in 18 years--there was no hotshot young coach brought in to stir the hearts and minds of the local populace. Wake stuck with Jim Grobe, a 54-year-old grandfather who had been 26--32 in his previous five seasons with the Demon Deacons and 33-33-1 at Ohio University before that. But those numbers say nothing about Grobe's philosophy of redshirting almost every freshman in order to field a team heavy with fourth- and fifth-year players, or the bond he had with his team. "When he talks to us, it's not so much like a coach who's demanding something from us," says safety Patrick Ghee. "It's more like a father who loves us."
The Deacons needed all the togetherness they could muster after they suffered two devastating injuries--quarterback Ben Mauk's season ended in the opening game against Syracuse when he broke his right arm and dislocated his shoulder, and Micah Andrews, their top running back, went down for the season with a knee injury two weeks later against Connecticut. Suddenly the two players around whom the Deacons had built their offense were gone. "For a while we were drawing up plays in the dirt," Grobe says. He inserted redshirt freshman Riley Skinner at quarterback and reiterated the advice he had given Mauk during the spring. "You don't have to be the Green Hornet, and you don't have to be Flash Gordon," he told Skinner. "You've just got to get us into the end zone."
In other words Grobe was looking for a steady hand, not heroics. He needed a quarterback who wouldn't make egregious errors, and he got more than that from Skinner, who led the ACC in completion percentage (66.1) and passing efficiency (140.1 rating), earning himself a place on the all-conference second team and the ACC freshman of the year award. Meanwhile the undersized (5'11", 245 pounds) Abbate was leading a defense that was, if not intimidating, at least opportunistic, intercepting 22 passes.
Grobe, a former assistant at Air Force, instilled a military-style efficiency in his troops. The Deacons may not have had as much talent as some of their opponents, but they almost always made fewer mistakes. Wake Forest forced 14 more turnovers than it committed, the second-best ratio in the ACC. Grobe and his staff preached that proper positioning would help avoid penalties--the Deacons were penalized for a modest 45 yards per game.
As with any defying-the-odds story, there was also luck involved. Wake's season could have been derailed in the second game, against lowly Duke, but the Blue Devils botched a 27-yard field goal attempt, kicking it low enough that safety Chip Vaughn blocked it with his elbow on the final play to preserve a 14--13 Wake Forest victory. Grobe acknowledged that his team was lucky to escape with a 21--14 win over Boston College when BC quarterback Matt Ryan overthrew an open receiver in the end zone and was intercepted in the last minute.