Yahoo! Sports: Wake Forest defies the odds
Both Louisville and Wake Forest have overcome injuries that may have decimated less-talented teams. Their reward is playing in a BCS bowl for the first time.
Wake Forest, ranked 15th, meets No. 5 Louisville in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 in the first matchup between the ACC and Big East champions.
The Demon Deacons (11-2) have only been to six bowl games since 1949, posting a 4-2 record and winning the last three. This is their first bowl appearance since a 38-17 rout of Oregon in the 2002 Seattle Bowl.
Never before, though, have the Demon Deacons been on a stage like this.
“We’re a football team that will really appreciate being in the Orange Bowl,” coach Jim Grobe said. “We don’t take anything for granted. Teams may take playing in bowl games for granted, but this is one team that’ll be really excited to be in this game.”
Louisville (11-1) is making its ninth straight bowl appearance and hasn’t won once since a 44-40 victory over Boise State in the 2004 Liberty Bowl. Last season, the Cardinals lost 35-24 to Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
“From each year that we’ve been here, we’ve progressed,” senior running back Kolby Smith said. “We went to the GMAC Bowl, the Liberty Bowl, the Gator Bowl and now we’re in a BCS bowl. I can only imagine that it’s going to get better from here on out.”
Both programs are playing in the Orange Bowl for the first time despite improbable circumstances.
Wake Forest lost its starting quarterback, top running back and his backup. Signal caller Ben Mauk broke his arm and had a shoulder injury that needed surgery when he dove after a fumble in a season-opening win over Syracuse.
Running back Micah Andrews suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the season and Kevin Harris, who finished with a team-high six touchdowns as the primary back, sprained a knee in late October and played just two of five games after the injury.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Skinner and converted wide receiver Kenneth Moore, though, helped the Demon Deacons continue an incredible season for a team many thought would finish last in the ACC.
Skinner completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 1,780 yards and eight touchdowns. Moore ran for a team-high 434 yards, including 165 in a win over Maryland on Nov. 25.
“We don’t want it to be a one-year thing,” Skinner said. “It’s something that we want to continue doing for a lot of years to come. I think we’ve got the program headed in the right direction.”
On Wednesday, Grobe was named The Associated Press Coach of the Year, winning by a wide margin over Greg Schiano of Rutgers.
“The best thing he did this year was convincing us to believe in our program and to believe in him and the rest of his coaches,” Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry said. “He convinced us to believe in our system and the things we were going to do.”
Like the Demon Deacons, Louisville was also unable to stay away from injuries.
Senior running back Michael Bush, a Heisman Trophy candidate coming into 2006, ran for 128 yards and three TDs before breaking his leg early in the second half of a season-opening rout of Kentucky and hasn’t played since.
Freshman Anthony Allen stepped in with 12 rushing touchdowns, while Smith averaged 5.7 yards per carry and had seven TDs.
After undergoing knee surgery that sidelined him late last season, quarterback Brian Brohm had surgery on his right thumb following a win over Miami on Sept. 16—an injury that was expected to keep him out for six weeks. He only missed two games before returning on Oct. 14 to help defeat Cincinnati.
Brohm finished strong, throwing for at least 324 yards in four of his final seven games. He also passed for 10 touchdowns with just one interception in the Cardinals’ last three games after their lone loss of the season against Rutgers.
Though their football history may not be as rich as some other schools, Brohm is not taking the Demon Deacons lightly.
“Everyone only wants to focus on tradition-rich schools,” he said. “None of that matters this season. They’ve had a great season this year. They’re ACC champions. They beat a lot of what you’d call tradition-rich schools to get there. They’re a great team and we’ve got to be ready for them.”
The Cardinals are second in the nation in total offense with 476.8 yards per game and third in scoring with 38.9 points a contest.
“We’re a good football team. It took everybody on the team to accomplish the fact that we’re Big East champions,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “That’s been our strength, from the scout team to the stars. Everybody plays a big part of it.”
Wake’s defense gave up 14 points or less in eight games this season, winning all of them. Its pass defense, led by safety Josh Gattis and cornerback Riley Swanson, registered an NCAA high-tying 22 interceptions.
The defense had one of its best performances of the season in beating Georgia Tech 9-6 in the ACC championship game on Dec. 2. The Demon Deacons picked off Reggie Ball twice and limited the Yellow Jackets to 272 yards in winning the school’s first conference championship in 36 years.
Wake may be better known for producing current NBA stars Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Josh Howard, and Swanson said the football team’s job of earning respect is not yet complete. A BCS bowl win could go a long way toward changing some minds.
“There’s still more work to do, drilling into people’s heads that we are a good football team this season,” he said.