A week off in the middle of the season can be any number of things to a college football team. It can be a needed mental and emotional break. Or a time to rest and heal the wounded. It can even be a momentum killer. We will see this weekend what it is for the Demon Deacons as a rested Wake Forest prepares to host Boston College Saturday night at Truist Field.
Wake had rebounded well from the gut-wrenching double overtime loss to Clemson with back-to-back wins over Florida State and Army West Point. At 5-1 overall and 1-1 in ACC play, the Demon Deacons had momentum and nothing but conference play in front of it for the rest of the season.
Back From The Bye
They got the week off from play, not completely from practice. So they are coming back this week with some newfound health and a little more bounce in the step, even if it is not always the correct rhythmic step. Since the bye week coincided with the school’s Fall Break, head coach Dave Clawson opted to give his team a few days off to recharge. The players had all day Thursday, Friday, and Saturday off. That meant there was some serious regrouping that needed to be done when they returned to the practice field on Sunday.
“We brought them back Sunday, and you have a football practice when they haven’t practiced in three days,” Clawson said Tuesday. “There’s some rust you’ve got to get off.” He said the energy was good, but the rhythm needed work.
What do college football players who have been in a football and academic grind around the clock since early August do with some downtime? Starting tight end Blake Whiteheart went fishing with his quarterback Sam Hartman. He called it, “Doing normal people stuff.” Even with the interruption in the football season, Whiteheart said the focus of the team has not wavered. “We can look at this next half [of the season] as six more games. We just have to look at this week and what we have to accomplish.”
The Wake Forest offense is doing exactly what was expected of it going into the season. It’s putting up big numbers. The Demon Deacons are in the top 40 in the country in total offense with a tick over 440 yards per game. They are also 14th in the nation in points per game at 41.2. Still, Whiteheart says they have yet to hit their ceiling as a team. “We set high standards for ourselves,” he told us. “After every week, the fans might be like, ‘Wow! They are scoring all these points,’ and that’s awesome.” But, he added, the team still spends its Sundays going over what needs to be corrected, no matter how many points they put up the day before. “You want to be perfect. I know no one can be perfect, but that is what we are chasing.”
Boston College was a bit of a wildcard coming into the season. The Eagles had one of the more veteran returning quarterbacks in the conference in Phil Jurkovec. But they lacked depth, particularly up front and it has been problematic for head coach Jeff Hafley. BC has had only two offensive linemen that have made it into the starting lineup for each of the six games this season. Jurkovec has paid at least a little of the price for it. While he has thrown for just over 1,300 yards, his touchdown to interception ratio is a paltry 10:6. The fifth-year senior is averaging only seven yards per completion. While there may be talent at the receiver position for the long game, Jurkovec rarely has had the time in the pocket to make it work.
It’s a shame because BC wideout Zay Flowers is one of the more athletically gifted receivers in the conference. He has 42 catches on the season, but “only” 556 yards. His average of just under seven yards per reception is emblematic of an offense that struggles to go downfield.
At 2-4 overall on the season, the Eagles’ wins are against FCS-level Maine and a conference win over the equally unpredictable Louisville.
Hafley said this week that he knows his defense has its hands full with the depth on offense for Wake Forest, particularly at receiver. “Ypu can’t go into this game and say, ‘I’m going to take away number nine or I’m going to take away number six.’ You’ve got to throw them different looks pre-snap and post snap. You’ve got to pressure them out of those same looks,” he said. “When you’ve got that much, you can’t just go out there and take away one player.”
Health, Well-Being, And The Road Ahead
While Clawson hopes his team can get back to its rhythm in time for Saturday’s game at Truist Field, the timing of coming off the win over Army coupled with the bye week works just fine for him. “When you come out of the Army game, you’re never healthy.” He added that he thinks the team is back to full strength, not just in terms of players who were missing games due to injuries, but, “It’s not just the guys who weren’t playing, but the guys who were having a hard time getting through a week of practice.”
With improved health, there is going to be an expectation for an enhanced defensive performance. The numbers under new defensive coordinator Brad Lambert have improved modestly compared to last year. “We’ve probably given up too many explosive plays still,” Clawson said. “I still don’t think we are playing the deep ball in the air well.” He added it was part of the work done during the bye week.
Clawson’s biggest message to the team when they came back from their days off, was to, “Enjoy the grind.” Expectations are at a tentative all-time high in Winston-Salem. The fan base may be leery of getting its collective hopes up to high. But the Last Word bowl projections have Wake Forest winning out over the last six weeks, finishing 11-1, and going to the Orange Bowl in the postseason.
That brings Clawson to his most predictable messaging to his team; not looking past the immediate moment right in front of them. “The only way games continue to be big games is if you find ways to win games in October into November.”