It’s no secret that Wake Forest has not beaten Clemson since 2008. The Wake coach at the time was Jim Grobe. He would last another five years in Winston-Salem. The Clemson head coach was Tommy Bowden. He didn’t last the rest of that week. A wide receiver coach named Dabo Swinney took over on an interim basis. In case you hadn’t heard, he is still around. The two schools meet this Saturday in Winston-Salem. And if you are objectively looking at the Demon Deacons, you have to ask, when it comes to Wake Forest vs. Clemson; if not now, when?
Both teams come in 3-0. Clemson has taken down ACC opponent GA Tech, as well as Furman, and LA Tech. They were not challenged in any of the three games. Wake Forest beat VMI and Vanderbilt with ease. But then the Demon Deacons needed a late stop on a two-point conversion to survive the home game against Liberty.
Wake head coach Dave Clawson said after the Liberty game that his team needed that game, that they needed to be challenged. “I’m glad we won. I think we get a lot more from this than if we won 47-20,” he said Saturday night. “You have to have games like this to develop as a team.”
His team needed some convincing. There was little sense of victory after the game. Quarterback Sam Hartman went into the post-game press conference and assessed himself a “D” grade for his performance. He was 26 of 44 for 325 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions.
The mood did not escape Clawson’s notice. “I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I told the team, you know, after the game in the locker room, it felt like a loss,” he said Tuesday. “I told these guys Sunday, ‘We won the game. Yeah, we didn’t play well, but, winning’s hard and Liberty had good players. And we’re not going to walk around here with our head down all depressed after we win.’”
He had the same message specific to Hartman. “I told Sam the same thing. You were the winning quarterback. Smile. Let’s go fix it and move on. We’re not going to hang our heads and be all depressed after we find a way to win a game. Winning is too hard. If you start doing that it stops being fun.”
It shouldn’t be too hard to get the players’ motivated attention this week. In speaking of Clemson, Clawson said, “Every year this is the most talented football team we play,” he said. “They’re very well coached in every aspect. I like Dabo. I respect him. And I think he has done a phenomenal job there of building a program.” He repeatedly used the term, “Gold standard” to describe the team, the defense, the defensive line, etc.
The defensive line, even without defensive lineman Xavier Thomas, who is still recovering from a foot injury, is one of the best in the country. “A lot of those guys are going to be playing on Sundays,” Clawson said. “I can get up here right now and talk about eight of their defensive linemen. They are that good. They are that deep.”
The Tigers are 35th in the country in total defense allowing a tick over 312 yards per game. Wake’s defense is only three spots farther down the list, allowing 316 yards per game. The Demon Deacons will be without defensive back Brendon Harris who is out for the foreseeable future with a right arm injury.
A place where Wake is going to have to be much cleaner than it has been over the first three games is in penalties. The analysis from Clawson has ranged from “undisciplined” to “brutal” when it comes to the six penalties per game average for his team. Clemson is not going to beat itself. The Tigers average just 38 yards in penalties per game, good for 17th best in the country. Giving up yards on either side of the ball is going to make Saturday a significantly more difficult task than it already is for the Demon Deacons.
While both teams have defenses that statistically match up with each other, the spotlight is on both offenses and the quarterbacks in particular.
Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei spent much of last season under sharp criticism from the fan base for his underwhelming performance. He told us at ACC Media Days, that he heard and read the criticisms and that it was bothering him more than it should. “That’s part of my maturing, learning to let it roll off my back.” He also went through an off-season training program that had him drop 30+ pounds from the weight he was at in the postseason last year. He said there were times during the season he was playing at about 260 pounds.
While the competition has been marginal to this point, the numbers don’t lie. His completion percentage from last year has jumped nine points to 64.8%. He has five touchdowns against just one interception. “I think he is more comfortable,” Clawson said of the Clemson quarterback. “When he’s comfortable, his accuracy is so much better. He just looks a lot more settled.”
Clawson also called Tigers running back Will Shipley, “Probably the best in the conference.” The sophomore is averaging just under eight yards a carry and has six touchdowns through three games.
That puts a lot of the onus on the Wake Forest offense to keep up. The Demon Deacons run game was negligible last weekend. Clawson said he is not concerned. He would like more balance, but it is not necessary. “The nature of football is that if a team is going to load up the box and dare you to throw it, you’ve got to be able to throw it,” he explained. Part of the issue with the lack of yardage from the running backs, he said, was too much lateral movement in the backfield looking for the big play, when a three or four-yard run would have sufficed just fine.
Clemson has some personnel advantages for certain. Can Wake match that with execution at a level beyond what it has done so far this season? With so much experience, and so much production returning from the last few years, it’s reasonable to ask, if Wake can’t beat Clemson now, this season, when will it be able to?
Note: Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson opened his weekly press conference by passing along thoughts and prayers to Clemson’s Bryan Gresee, who lost his 15-year-old sister, Ella last week to cancer. “It’s tragic and I feel so bad for him and everybody at Clemson over what happened. Certainly, college football is important. But things happen in life that make it seem a lot less important.”