Football careers come full circle|Wake’s Skinner, Duke’s Lewis to square off Saturday

Published 6:17 am Wednesday, November 25, 2009

By Staff
WINSTON-SALEM — Riley Skinner’s career at Wake Forest will end the same way it began — against Duke’s Thaddeus Lewis.
The quarterbacks made their mutual starting debuts against each other four years ago, and since then, both have written their names throughout their schools’ record books while helping turn their programs around.
But with both the Demon Deacons (4-7, 2-5 ACC) and Blue Devils (5-6, 3-4) out of the bowl picture, this weekend’s season finale in Durham also will mark the last college appearances for the four-year stars.
“It’s neat that it was Thad’s first start. … He’s had an unbelievable career,” Skinner said Tuesday. “Their seasons haven’t gone as well as they wanted, but I know him, personally, he has been doing a lot for that program. … To end our careers together is going to be pretty neat.”
That the leading passers in both Duke and Wake Forest history will end their starting careers on the opposite sidelines of the same field — just as how they began them — is a fitting measure of symmetry for two players who have established themselves as the faces of their respective programs.
“It’s amazing. Every time Riley’s on the field and we play against each other, it’s been a great game even though he’s been on the winning side of things,” said Lewis, who’s 0-3 against Skinner. “Just to go out with two guys that started their careers playing against each other and now they’re going to end their career playing against each other, it’s funny how that panned out.”
Skinner’s impact on the Demon Deacons’ program was felt almost immediately. His emergence as a mop-topped redshirt freshman in 2006 helped to propel Wake Forest to an unlikely Atlantic Coast Conference title and an Orange Bowl appearance, and he followed that up by guiding his team to victories in the Meineke and Eaglebank bowls.
Along the way, he set nearly every school passing record — including career marks for pass attempts (1,311), completions (875), yards (9,390), touchdowns (55) and completion percentage (66.7) — but ultimately may have become a victim of his own high expectations.
After that meteoric rise four years ago, Wake Forest’s victory total has decreased steadily from that school-record 11 to nine, eight and finally to their current mark. They’ve lost five straight since a 4-2 start, with two losses in overtime and three others by a combined seven points.
“In the big picture, it’s a little hard to digest because we started out so well,” Skinner said. “We started out winning the conference and going to the Orange Bowl. You set the bar pretty high. I really don’t know many teams in the conference that can keep repeating that every year.”
Conversely, the Blue Devils have increased their wins every year under Lewis, who didn’t win a game until he was a sophomore but already has led the Blue Devils to their best year since 1994. Three straight losses will keep them from their first bowl in 15 years.
Lewis’ numbers mostly are better than Skinner’s — he has 9,678 career yards passing, breaking Ben Bennett’s 26-year-old school record last week in his hometown of Miami, and has thrown for a school-record 64 touchdowns.
“Riley’s going to hate me to say this,” Wake Forest defensive lineman John Russell said, “but (Lewis) is probably the toughest quarterback in the conference.”
The conclusion of their careers gave everyone pause to reflect on just how far everyone has come since that day in September 2006 when Skinner replaced an injured Ben Mauk in the starting lineup and Lewis took over the Blue Devils. Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe called it “a panic situation” and Skinner joked that the coaches “were scared to let me throw.”
“I kept thinking, ‘I’m not losing to Duke my first game,’” Skinner quipped.
He didn’t. Lewis threw for 305 yards and a touchdown to overshadow Skinner, who threw for 235 yards and a score. But a blocked field goal on the final snap gave the Demon Deacons a 14-13 victory — the first in a string of dramatic finishes that wound up sending them to the best year in school history.
“I think a lot of people didn’t know what to expect out of two young guys coming into the league and being put in that position,” Lewis said. “To see where we’ve come from and you look back at your last start to your last game, it’s a big difference.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Durham, N.C., contributed to this report.