WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – If Wake Forest is going to snap its run of four straight losing seasons, the Demon Deacons need a fast start.
And nothing would derail those plans quicker than an opening-game loss to a Championship Subdivision team.
That's why Wake Forest insists it is taking Presbyterian seriously and vows to play with urgency Thursday night.
"There's a determination right now with our guys. I think they were embarrassed by the way the season ended last year," coach Jim Grobe said. "I think everybody, top to bottom in the program, feels we underachieved, and I think our guys are motivated to play, and you can tell that at practice."
It's been a long nine months in Winston-Salem, after the Demon Deacons capped off a 5-7 finish with three consecutive losses by a combined score of 130-27.
They look to start this season off strong with a run of four favorable matchups, starting with a Blue Hose team they beat 53-13 three years ago.
Wake Forest — which hasn't finished with a winning record since 2008 — has a decent chance to start 4-0 with a visit to Boston College next week followed by a home game against Louisiana-Monroe and a trip to Army.
"If you haven't achieved as well as you thought you could the year before, you feel a little bit more motivated," Grobe said. "Maybe from that standpoint, we have been there before. We have had our backs against the wall and had bounced back.
"It just feels we have got the potential to be a pretty good football team."
Grobe calls this his most athletic team in 13 seasons at Wake Forest. He has three key offensive playmakers and multi-year starters — quarterback Tanner Price, receiver Michael Campanaro and running back Josh Harris — plus eight returning starters on defense, led by nose tackle Nikita Whitlock.
Perhaps the biggest concern for Presbyterian coach Harold Nichols is Campanaro, who led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 7.9 catches per game last season and now faces a Blue Hose defense that has seven starters back from a unit that gave up more than 500 yards per game in 2012.
"He's got me up at night wondering how we're going to be able to" contain him, Nichols said.
Five things to watch in this season opener between the Demon Deacons and Blue Hose:
HELP FOR CAMPANARO: He essentially was Wake Forest's entire offense last season — Campanaro was the Demon Deacons' top receiver, third-leading rusher and gained 871 all-purpose yards — despite missing 2½ games with a broken hand. But Grobe is quick to point out Campanaro can't do it all — and he's looking for someone to take some of the focus off his versatile senior.
WELCOME BACK, JOSH: The Demon Deacons' ground game got a boost a week into preseason camp when Harris, the team's top rusher in two of his three seasons, received a waiver from the NCAA to play his senior season after previously being declared ineligible. Harris started practice 10 days after his teammates but won the starting job and is looking to add to his career total of 1,760 yards rushing — the most of any active player in the ACC — against a Blue Hose defense that gave up nearly 300 yards per game on the ground in 2012. He scored two touchdowns against them in that 2010 meeting, including one that covered 46 yards.
PLAYING THE KIDS: Grobe built his program on a foundation of redshirting virtually every freshman that steps on campus, but there looks to be more than a few exceptions. Four freshmen appear on the two-deep — including two on the offensive line — and Grobe has hinted that others also may see immediate playing time. This would seem to be a prime opportunity to ease some of those new faces onto the field.
HISTORY BOOKS: Wake Forest hasn't lost to an FCS opponent since Appalachian State beat Jim Caldwell's last team in 2000. The Blue Hose have struggled mightily against college football's big boys. Since moving to Division I in 2007, Presbyterian is 0-5 against the Bowl Subdivision, hasn't been closer than 37 points against those teams and hasn't scored an offensive touchdown against one since 2010.
TRICKERY: Maybe the Blue Hose will come up with another highlight-reel trick play. They're still talking about the lateral bounce-pass that QB Brandon Miley threw to receiver Derrick Overholt, who then flung the ball to Michael Ruff for a 68-yard touchdown. Says Nichols: "It's going to take a little bit more than just bounce passes to beat Wake Forest."
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