WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — One might think that Wake Forest was fired up to beat Maryland because the Deacs were coming off of a bye, or maybe even because they had to have this win to keep their bowl hopes alive. Or maybe because it was Homecoming.
But, no. It was probably all due to Wake Forest alum and one of the greatest golfers ever, Arnold Palmer, opening the gates for the team to run through.
“I knew that he was going to open the gate. I really had no idea he was going to ride the motorcycle,” Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe said. “I heard somebody apparently said they were trying to get him to take a golf cart out with the motorcycle, but he wanted to ride the motorcycle, so I thought that was really, really cool.”
“It was a special day for us. It’s special to beat Maryland (34-10), obviously, but it’s also special to have Arnold Palmer there for that.”
Now that that’s out of the way … we can get to the actual football. Wake Forest improved to 4-3 (2-2 ACC) while Maryland fell to 5-2 (1-2 ACC). No one thought Maryland would be lower in the Atlantic Division standings than Wake Forest at this point in the season. Yet here we are.
1. Wake Forest’s offensive tweaks are paying dividends for the Deacons. Wake’s 31 points against Maryland were the most it scored against an ACC opponent since 2011 against … Maryland. The Maryland defense isn’t what it was at the start of this year, but this is two pretty solid back-to-back games for Wake Forest offensively after starting the year dreadfully.
The Deacs were experimenting with an option package for quarterback Tanner Price, who can be an effective runner at times. But the problem earlier in the year was that the option plays were mostly pitches on the perimeter, and those often ended in disaster for the Deacs. They couldn’t generate anything offensively. So they made some tweaks, and clearly those tweaks have paid off.
“I think more than anything else it’s trying to find Tanner (Price’s) comfort zone…I think, right or wrong, he’s more comfortable sitting in the pocket throwing the football. He runs well enough to be an option quarterback, but we really had issues on the perimeter pitching the ball,” Grobe said.
“We had some issues with getting out of the mesh, actually pulling the ball when it’s time to keep it and run down the line of scrimmage. We’re still running the option. We’re still making a lot of decisions whether to hand it or keep it, but the perimeter has become bubble throws for us instead of getting down the line of scrimmage and pitching the ball.”
Price is much more comfortable as well, and he thinks that the offensive line going to wider splits has been a key change, too.
“It’s been a big part of our offensive success. The big splits have really helped the offensive line and it spreads defenses out, especially with the empty stuff that we do with it, splitting out five receivers,” Price said. “Our whole offensive unit has really adopted it and I think everybody really enjoys running it. It’s been a lot of fun and we’re going to continue to work hard each week to execute our offense.”
He finished with a stat line of 26-of-36 passing for 236 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown on a trick play, a pass from wide receiver Michael Campanaro. The proverbial cycle.
2. Nikita Whitlock and the Wake Forest defense were fantastic. Whitlock, Wake Forest’s 250-pound nose tackle out of Texas who none of the big schools recruited, continuously plays the game with a chip on his shoulder. And he was rearing to go from the jump in this game, getting a sack on the first play of the game. (He finished was two, and was almost unblockable most of the game, particularly early.)
“We called a play where I blitzed the left A-gap — well, not blitzed it, I had the left A-gap — and that guard pulled,” Whitlock said. “And I was like, ‘Yo, this is a huge hole.’
“After that, once you get into a rhythm, you just start going hard and start hitting people and start running fast and just keep it going.”
Maryland put up 383 yards, but Wake’s defense held them to just four first downs rushing the ball and 23 rushing yards on 39 attempts. And Wake forced three turnovers.
Wake went up to Clemson and let an excellent offense put up 56 points on them. In the last two games, Wake has allowed just a total of 23 points.
No, neither offense the Deacs have faced is all that powerful. But Whitlock doesn’t think it’s a fluke.
“We’re a different team than we used to be. We might have folded last year or in prior years, but we have so much talent back here on defense that I don’t know how we could fold,” Whitlock said.
“I think we’re back. I think we’re the Deacons that we used to be in the Orange Bowls and the consecutive bowl years. We’re playing with intensity. We’ve got the juice back, for lack of a better term. …We’ve definitely got the juice back. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
3. Maryland injuries. Yikes. These are starting to pile up again in a hurry for Maryland in a way that’s reminiscent of the 2012 season, when the Terps not only went through four quarterbacks, but also lost other key players on both sides of the ball.
Going into the game, Maryland had already lost six players for the season and were missing nine more in the game. Then starting linebacker L.A. Goree had back spasms in warmups and couldn’t go and starting safety Anthony Nixon hurt his toe during the game. Maryland’s defense was already missing four starters (five who had started a game already).
Could it get worse? Well, yes. Because it did.
Wide receiver Deon Long — a starter — broke his tibia and fibula in a gruesome injury in the second quarter. Later in the game, Stefon Diggs — Maryland’s best player — broke his fibula. Both are out for the year.
Maryland head coach Randy Edsall — whose team has now lost two of its last three games (including two ACC road games by a combined score of 97-10) — isn’t interested in using injuries as an excuse.
“It’s unfortunate. I feel bad for both those guys. But we’ve got to make sure that we move forward. What has to happen is we have to have guys step up and guys go out there and play with the kind of intensity that you have to play with for 60 minutes,” Edsall said.
“We didn’t get that today and I’ve got to do a better job of making sure they listen to me rather than listen to everybody outside of the program trying to congratulate them on stuff that we haven’t even accomplished yet.”
Edsall said that after starting quarterback C.J. Brown went out with a head injury at Florida State and he couldn’t regroup his team on the sidelines, he decided he would do that this time after they witnessed Long’s injury up close.
It worked, as they put a drive together and got a field goal out of it after trailing 10-0. But Wake would score the next 14 points. Will they be able to overcome these injuries, either mentally or physically? That certainly remains to be seen. At a certain point, isn’t it just too much?
“I had to get their mind right there because again, Deon is a great kid and a really good player. When you see that, like I said, we hurt for Deon but we’ve still got to go play a game, try to win the game,” Edsall said. “We just didn’t respond the way that I would’ve hoped we would have.”
4. Michael Campanaro is now Wake Forest’s all-time career receptions leader. The Clarksville, MD native seemed bound and determined to set the record against his hometown team, and he finally did with less than a minute to go. He finished the game with 11 catches for 122 yards and a score. Just another day at the office for the reliable Campanaro, and that’s why he passed Desmond Clark with his 217th reception.
Clark played in the NFL from 1999-2010, mostly as a converted tight end for the Chicago Bears. “I remember playing with Desmond Clark in Madden growing up as a middle schooler. It’s just an honor to break someone like Desmond Clark’s record,” Campanaro said. “He’s a great player and had a great NFL career. It’s just special.
“I’m just thankful, Coach Grobe trying to get me that last catch. I’ve got to thank Tanner Price. He’s been with me since I started playing ball, so thank him for all the catches.”
It’s obviously nice for both Campanaro and the Deacons that the record is out of the way now, which is something Grobe mentioned after the game, since Wake is at Miami next weekend. Campanaro was much happier to get the record this week, in front of his home fans, than be just one catch away and have to do it somewhere else.
Ultimately, he’s just glad it was in a winning effort.
“It feels good. I think getting the win even feels even better,” Campanaro said. “I’m just excited for our team and to get above .500 is big, but it’s definitely special to get the record against those guys.”