Wake Forest is living in a space where two things can be true at one time. In fact, many things can be true at one time, and the Demon Deacons need all of them. After taking a 48-21 drubbing at the hands of Louisville Saturday, Wake Forest needs a deep look in the mirror to figure out what is next.
It’s not that Wake Forest lost Saturday to drop to 6-2 overall and 2-2 in conference play. A loss, while eliminating what outside chance they still had at the ACC Atlantic title, was never out of the realm of possibility. It was the way they lost. It was the way the strength of the team all season long was ripped away as a viable tool for the team. And once the avalanche started, the team and the coaching staff looked helpless to get out of its way.
Wake Forest Needs A Deep Look
In the postgame press conference, head coach Dave Clawson described the game as a, “Thorough a** kicking.” He also called it, “A disaster.” It’s hard to find fault with either assessment. Like most coaches, Clawson likes to talk about how each game simply goes in the win column or the loss column. But in reality, some revibrate over time a little more. They linger into the evening with either the sweet aroma of success or the stench of one that got away. But this was worse than that. Because while Wake was up 14-13 at the half, they never appeared to be the high-powered offense that came into the game averaging more than 41 points per game.
The Deacs were down 6-0 at the end of the first quarter. And they had accumulated all of nine yards of offense, compared to the 158 for Louisville.
They righted the ship in the second quarter with two sustained drives that resulted in touchdowns from inside the red zone. That has been a focal point for Clawson the last few weeks, needing to get more out of red zone opportunities. They also held a decisive 176-106 total yardage advantage. Even at that, Clawson said his team was being outplayed and was fortunate to be up at all at halftime.
Slipping And Sliding On The Ice
But then came the third quarter. Quarterback Sam Hartman threw a pick-six on a pass where it appeared he did not see defensive back Kei’Trel Clark about to jump the route. It was a 46-yard “gimme” for Louisville. And it was at that point that Wake’s offense looked like one of those cartoons when a character slips on the ice, and tries to get back up repeatedly, only to slip and fall on their backside repeatedly.
Wake Forest’s third-quarter possessions went as such; Pick-6, fumble, fumble, interception, punt, pick-6. That put the game away. It was 48-14 Louisville before the Demon Deacons could even attempt to stand on the ice again. Backup Mitch Griffis played the fourth quarter. There was no need to subject Hartman to any more abuse. He’d already been sacked seven times in three quarters, on top of all the turnovers that came from him.
The team has to go over game film, both by position room, and overall. It will be worse than whatever Halloween weekend fright movie any of them thought about watching.
But then comes the next part. Literally. As in what’s next? A seasoned football coach once told me he liked the phrase, “So what, what’s next?” It was a way of not looking back and not looking too far ahead. It was about a team getting over the good and bad of what happened and going to the next play, the next practice, the next team meeting, or whatever was next.
Clawson subscribes to his own version of that, giving his team 24 hours to absorb whatever happened Saturday and moving on to the next step in the process. He has his work cut out for him. After the game, Linebacker Ryan Smenda described himself as speechless. Center Michael Jurgens was visibly emotional about the loss as he described the need to be perfect as an offensive line unit.
Hartman, who has been a part of the postgame press conference for every game he has played this season was not made available to the press. He has been funny with a dry sense of humor some of the time. He has been visibly bothered by his performance at other times, (the Liberty game). And he has been downright angered at other times like when he abruptly walked out of the press conference after the Clemson game. It doesn’t take a Pulitzer Prize winner to figure out which version we would have gotten after Saturday’s debacle. Still, QB1 at any school needs to be part of the open dissection and dialogue process. He is going to have to be the guy who leads the team in the recovery phase. His transparent analysis is deserved.
For his part, Clawson appeared visibly flummoxed by what had just happened. At one point he pushed his Wake Forest hat back so as to rub his face and head with both hands. These are generally not the exasperated signs one sees from Clawson in an interview.
Part of the look was knowing the task in front of him in re-setting the mentality of the team. Each week now carries a lot more weight to it. The Demon Deacons need to win out. That is first and foremost. This weekend they travel to Raleigh to play a physically battered but eager NC State team. They will face a North Carolina team that has a high-performing freshman quarterback and needs to put up tons of points because the defense is MIA. They have a Syracuse team that overperformed the first half of the season and is now playing as previously expected. And they will end against a Duke team that is playing far better than most imagined in year one of a revitalization program. Wake must win them all. There is no margin for error if the season with high expectations is to reach satisfactory fulfillment.
What They Are Made Of
They further need Clemson to win out. That would include winning the conference championship game (possibly against UNC), so as to potentially secure a spot in the college football playoffs. That would give everyone below them a better bowl game, and possibly put Wake in the Orange Bowl in Miami during the holidays. A week ago, it was a lot more certain. But then again, a week ago, this beatdown in Louisvile hadn’t happened. A 10-2 record going into the postseason would erase at least some of the pain.
If there is a bright spot to be found, Clawson put forth this Saturday. “I know what our football team is made of, and we’ve got to come back and prove it.” He said this is where the team’s experienced leadership is going to need to step up. “After a game like this, the message is ‘we’ll see what we’re made of.’ But I know what we’re made of.”
No time like the present to let everyone else see it.