Wake Forest sees Music City Bowl as opportunity to atone for loss to Vanderbilt

Wednesday, December 28, 2011 at 8:52pm

One loss didn’t change Wake Forest’s season but it might have altered the Demon Deacons’ reputation, especially in SEC country.

The Demon Deacons finished with a respectable 6-6 record and tied for second in the ACC’s Atlantic division. They made strides with big victories against Florida State and North Carolina State and had close calls against Notre Dame and Clemson.

All that, however, might have been forgotten thanks to their performance in their last regular-season game. With a bowl bid already locked up, Wake Forest welcomed in Vanderbilt for senior day last month. The sendoff was far from jubilant as the Demon Deacons suffered a 41-7 whipping.

They will try to write a better ending to what has been a breakthrough season when they play Mississippi State (6-6) in the Music City Bowl at 5:40 p.m. on Friday (ESPN) at LP Field.

“If I was Mississippi State and I was looking at that game, I’d probably think we were cupcakes,” Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock said. “As the underdog, that is what you want them to think. I don’t mind a bad reputation as long as we go out there and play hard. I don’t think it was a good show of our talent or progress we had made during the season and during the spring before. I think we just had a bad game and should have played better.”

After going 3-9 in 2010, Wake Forest doubled its win total and landed in a bowl for the first time in three years. Playmakers roamed on both sides of the ball. Wide receiver Chris Givens set the single-season receiving record with 1,276 yards and All-American safety Josh Bush finished tied for sixth in the nation with six interceptions.

The individual successes contributed to the team’s good fortune as Wake Forest won four straight games and rushed out to a 5-2 record.

That is where the Demon Deacons hit a wall. They allowed 155 points in their last five games, four of which were losses. They were blown out in a turnover-plagued game against North Carolina. The following week, Notre Dame snuck out of Winston-Salem, N.C., with a seven-point win. Then Clemson, now ranked 13th, escaped with a 31-28 victory on a last-second field goal.

The emotional games started to wear on Wake Forest.

“By the end of the year, I think we were probably about as beat up mentally as we were physically,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “By the time we got to Maryland [in the 11th game] and got a win over Maryland just to become bowl eligible, our guys were pretty much fried. Then, that next week, I thought Vanderbilt came in and just played great. They played really, really good football, and we didn’t play good football.”

The Demon Deacons didn’t have an answer for the Commodores, who needed to win its final game to clinch their own bowl berth. They totaled 481 total yards — 297 on the ground — and scored 35 unanswered points.

“I think complacency had a big part in it,” quarterback Tanner Price said. “We were satisfied with making a bowl and to me I think that is a flaw that needs to be corrected. When you are satisfied with being 6-6, and you don’t want to go out and win every week I think there is a problem within the team. I think we have kind of overcome that. We have had some time off to rebound, refocus and reenergize ourselves. Now we are ready to go and I think everyone is pretty hungry to get a win.”

And to improve their collective reputation.

“Just to have the opportunity to play another SEC team and redeem ourselves is something we are looking forward to,” Price said. “I think it is going to be a much different [Wake Forest] team.”