Three games into the season, Wake Forest is searching for an offensive identity.
Right now, it looks like a 1-2 mess.
Coach Jim Grobe knows exactly what he has to work with: decent players, good kids, not enough depth and zero margin for error in the ACC.
And apparently against Louisiana-Monroe. And Army.
“I don’t think it’s a program thing, it’s just the way Wake Forest is always going to be,” Grobe told ESPN.com on Monday. “We’re going to be a team that’s got some talented kids, we’re not overly talented, we don’t have a lot of depth. We can’t afford too many injuries like what happened to us last year. But more than anything else, we’re just a team that’s capable, but we’ve really got to play good every week. Some teams are talented enough that they can have four or five down weeks a year and still play good enough to win, but Wake is not that way. We’ll never be that way in this league, or even with the teams we play nonconference. We’re a team that has to play good every Saturday, and any time we don’t play pretty good, we’re not going to win.”
Hence the past two weeks and the 1-2 start, with the lone win over an FCS team and last week’s 21-19 loss to Louisiana-Monroe of the Sun Belt Conference.
Of everything that has happened in the ACC this month, the ineptitude of Wake Forest's offense might be the biggest surprise. After a 5-7 finish in 2012 and just one bowl appearance in the past four seasons, the shine of the 2006 ACC title has started to rust. Wake Forest is not going to win the Atlantic Division every year, but fans should expect to be bowl eligible under Grobe on a more consistent basis. Right now, just four weeks into the season, that’s already in jeopardy.
The Deacs’ offense has been downright ugly. The defense has been on the field too long. While much of the attention has been on the lack of a running game (70 rushing yards total in the past two games) and whether or not the staff should continue to run the option, the bigger problem has been the fact that Wake was unable to win with its passing game when defenses have shut down the run.
The bulk of the problems start up front, with an offensive line that is fragmented and continues to battle injuries -- a carryover of last year's problems. Pass protecting, run blocking -- it's all an issue, but it wasn't that long ago that the staff showed what it could do with a capable line. In 2011, when the Deacs had four veteran linemen, they broke the school record for pass offense and went to a bowl game.
"We thought we really had it down," said offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke. "We beat Florida State again that year, and we thought, 'Ok, we've got it figured out. We have our offensive identity.' Last year we tried to come in with that same stuff, but the breakdown was offensive line issues. ... A lot of stuff has happened to our O-line and I think we're still struggling to find out what our offense is with this offensive line ever since that round of guys graduated in 2011. Tanner [Price] hasn't changed. Tanner was a sophomore and we broke the school record for pass offense. I thought, 'Wow, the best is yet to come.'
"We've experimented with a lot of different running plays and running styles the last two seasons now," he said. "... I think we're still trying to nail that down, and we hope we're honing in on this."
The Deacs only ran the ball 15 times against ULM last week, but they only completed 28 of 48 pass attempts. In the past two losses, they’ve converted just 9-of-29 third downs. Against BC, they had three turnovers. Instead of watching receiver Michael Campanaro catch the ball 16 times, Grobe said he’d rather see three receivers catch it five or six times each.
The Deacs like to throw the ball on running plays and use bubble screens. Their top receiver, Campanaro, catches a lot of balls behind the line of scrimmage. If opponents load up the box to try to stop the run, the staff has no problem opening up the passing game.
"We're not hard-headed about running the ball like some people are," Lobotzke said. "If you're not going to defend the run, we're going to run the ball. If you're going to load up on the run, we're going to try to find other avenues. We want to run the ball, but a lot of our running plays result in good passing yardage for us."
Against ULM, the Deacs were 9-for-9 on running plays throwing the ball. But they didn't win.
"The one stat we do care about is winning," Lobotzke said. "We've got to score more and we've got to win more games. At the end of the day, rushing stats be damned, passing stats be damned, we need to score some points, and we haven't. I don't know that there's an answer yet, but we are working our butts off to find it."
They've got about three days.
The Deacs have to travel to Army this Saturday, a game they very well could lose considering how poorly the offense has played. A loss at West Point could trigger a slick downward spiral, starting with a road trip to Clemson on Sept. 28.
“We’ve got to win Saturday,” Grobe said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. It’s going to be tough if we don’t win Saturday and then heading to Clemson the next week is not going to be good.
Seven straight conference opponents await following the Army game, and the regular season will once again be punctuated with Vanderbilt. Grobe, who is in his 13th season as head coach of the Deacs, is just three wins away from reaching the top of Wake Forest's all-time wins chart. At this rate, though, he might not get it, especially if they can’t win on Saturday.
Not that they’re not trying.
At 6:30 a.m. on Monday, Wake Forest was back in the weight room, working to lift its focus from the disappointing loss to moving on to this weekend’s game at Army. Grobe was his usual pleasant self on Monday afternoon, not sounding discouraged or frustrated. Instead, he was matter-of-fact about what needs to happen moving forward: get healthy, stay healthy and play better.
“We’ve got to keep working at it,” Grobe said. “Our job is to teach the kids better. It’s not just the kids. We’re Wake Forest. We’re an academic school playing in a big-time league. We don’t have great depth, and we have good players, but we’re not better than everybody on our schedule. We’ve got to play to win. I understand that. When we don’t play well enough to win, I’m not going to tolerate it. We’re going out there this afternoon and work harder than we’ve been working. The coaches are going to work harder, and the players are going to work harder. I know Saturday we can go up to West Point and win, but we’ve got to play good.”
The staff had much higher hopes for the option game heading into the season, and "it just hasn't materialized," Lobotzke said. There’s been a bevy of problems, including injuries to offensive linemen and receivers, youth and an inability to pass protect. Even worse, though, was the apathy on the sideline during the ULM game.
“My biggest problem Saturday was I never felt like our offense had a sense of urgency about them,” Grobe said. “That’s unusual because our kids practice hard. We’ve got good kids. But get to Saturday and each time we had a bad series and we come off ... there just wasn’t a sense of, ‘We’ve gotta get this done.’
“We’ve got to somehow drill into our players that every possession is pretty special, and you’ve got to take advantage of it because you’re not always going to have a chance to take those last-minute drives to win games.”
The clock is ticking for Wake Forest to turn things around.