Coaches will tell you all wins and all losses count the same. They will tell you that each just counts as one win or one loss. They go in the left column or the right column. And while that is of course technically true, some games carry a larger weight, win or lose, than others. So, while the Demon Deacons played its most competitive Clemson game in many years as far as the scoreboard reads, it’s time to expect more from Wake Forest.
The scoreboard at Truist Field said Wake was only one fourth down completion away from ending the seemingly forever losing streak to Clemson, that goes back to 2009. That would conceivably be enough to give some fans encouragement that someday the Clemson streak will end. Someday.
Stepping Up To New Expectations
But this is not the “little engine that could” program anymore. Head coach Dave Clawson, to his credit, has raised the stakes in Winston-Salem. It took him more years than other programs would have afforded a coach. The historical sporadic success of the Wake Forest program bought Clawson some extra time to formulate the turnaround, and it paid off. Last year’s 11-3 record, ACC Atlantic Division title, and bowl win is proof that the days of accepting “almost” performances should be in the rear-view mirror. This is a highly experienced, highly talented Wake Forest team.
The players understand that. To see the hurt clearly felt by center Michael Jurgens in the post-game press conference was proof that this was not just another game for the left column or the right column. This was a game in which there was a lot of mental, emotional, and game prep investment. And they came up a fourth-down pass short in double overtime. Likewise, Sam Hartman was in no mood to be trifled with. While other players met the media, having showered and/or changed after the game, Hartman was still in uniform sans shoes and cleats. He left the press conference room before all the media questions had even been asked, having given himself a failing grade because the team lost.
But the concept of the gritty and gutty performance is not the full story. It rarely is. Because while Wake Forest had some very high-end moments, and even extended periods of good football Saturday, it was not a complete game by the Demon Deacons.
Numbers Don’t Lie, Even When You Want Them To
The statistical imbalance in the first half of the game will lend to Clawson’s post-game assertion that his team fought back. Indeed, they had to. Wake had four first-quarter possessions with three of them ending in punts. The Demon Deacons had six first-half possessions with half of them going no better than three-and-out, (excluding the one-play possession at the end of the half). This shows that the Wake Forest offense took too long to find a rhythm and thus put undue pressure on a defense that was already going to have its work cut out for it under even the best of circumstances. And how many three-and-out series did Clemson have in that same first half? Exactly. Zero. The last drive of the first half that led to the Clemson field goal and the 20-14 lead was a 13-play drive that drained five-and-a-half minutes from the game clock.
And in a sport where one statistic directly connects to others, those possessions get you to a first half time of possession that was 22 minutes for Clemson and only eight minutes for Wake Forest. At the half, Clemson had run 47 offensive plays to only 26 for Wake Forest. Not surprisingly, Clemson had 309 yards of total offense, in one half, to 129 for Wake.
Digging Out Of A Hole
Clawson’s words carry even more foundation when you look at the second half of the game. Total plays for the two teams were dead even at 33 each. Wake even had a significant edge in total yards in the second half, 289 to 195. The gap in time of possession in the third quarter was only a 12-second advantage for Clemson.
But all of that was just slowly whittling away at what was already a massive statistical advantage for Clemson built in the first half, even to the point of giving Wake a short-lived eight-point lead in the third quarter. There are final stats that are still very telling. The 112 total yards advantage for Clemson (559 to 447), the 15-minute time of possession for Clemson, and a staggering third down comparison. The Tigers converted on 70% of their third down plays, while Wake Forest only managed 41%. Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei was often able to use his feet to escape Wake pressure and extend plays. Even when the defense got hands on him, they rarely brought him down on first contact.
Wake Forest had an undeniably successful third quarter and an improved fourth quarter. But there was too much imbalance in multiple parts of its game to pull off this win.
Clemson’s Vulnerable Defensive Backs
The one statistic that was heavily tilted against Clemson was the penalties. The Tigers had 10 penalties for 120 yards. Five of them were pass interference calls. A couple were strategically well done. If Fred Davis doesn’t pull down A.T. Perry in the first half, Wake likely has a touchdown on that play. Better for Clemson to give up the 15 yards than the seven points.
Clemson was playing with several reserve defensive backs. They were frequently outmatched by the athletic Demon Deacon receivers, and thus got caught with the penalties. It made it all the more curious in the fourth quarter when Wake threw only two passes, relying instead on 12 rushing plays.
Clawson said after the game that it was a matter of adjusting to the changes in the Clemson defense, as the Tigers tried to give more personnel help to their troubled defensive backs. It makes sense to take what the defense is giving you. It will also be a day to be reckoned with when Wake Forest comes into a game of this magnitude imposing its strengths on the opponent for four quarters. Those are the things programs do when they are no longer grappling to climb the mountain but recognizing that they belong at the top with others. Expectations rise with the climb.
Catching Up And Moving On
While theoretically all games count for the same one win or one loss, Wake is now in a position of no longer controlling its own destiny in the divisional race. It needs help because it needs Clemson to lose twice, to teams the Demo Deacons still have in front of them. It is going to be a hard pill to swallow, but Saturday’s loss necessitates Wake fans to root for North Carolina State to beat Clemson this coming Saturday. It’s the price for not playing a full four quarters.
Guts and grit are great for comebacks and to stay in the game or mount a comeback. It is also ok to learn to expect more from Wake Forest football at this point.