Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson likes to say that all games count the same. They either go in the left column or the right column; Translation: the win column or the loss column. And that is true of whoever you play. All the way until it isn’t true. While Clawson, his staff, and his players have to focus on one game at a time, the reality is some games are more impactful on the outcome of the season. Some games are more meaningful and create a ripple effect throughout the season. We know this because after back-to-back losses Wake Forest is trying to go from reeling to redemption.
Back In The Day…Three Weeks Ago
It was just the third week of October that the Demon Deacons were 6-1, ranked in the top 10 in the polls, and envisioning an upper-echelon bowl game with prestige and a big payout. Now, we aren’t even to the midway point of November, and Wake is coming off back-to-back beatings. While the score of the loss at Raleigh Saturday may not be close to what happened in Louisville the prior week, the tone, tenor, and impact are similar. Both caused the Wake nation to shudder, shake their collective heads, and recoil in a type of PTSD understood only by the longtime faithful in Winston-Salem.
They face North Carolina at home Saturday night, with three games left in the season. That means the range of possibilities is as wide as the gap between their well-played games and their poorly-played games. Nine and three would be a solid finish with a memorable level bowl game. Eight or seven wins are going to be disappointing based on the level of experience this squad has.
It’s not just that Wake Forest has lost three games with another three to four games still left in the season. It’s more a matter of how the Demon Deacons have lost.
In Louisville, Wake Forest was in the game for the first half…sort of. The offense did not have that look of potency having scored only 14 points and garnered only nine yards of total offense in the first quarter. And then the roof caved in during the third quarter. We are not looking to be the cause of more PTSD, but the 35-0 point differential, the three Wake fumbles, and the three Sam Hartman interceptions were painful to watch. At the time we likened the game to a cartoon where a character would slip on a patch of ice. Every time he would try to get up he would fall on his rear end again.
The loss to North Carolina State was certainly closer on the scoreboard. But did anyone see any signs of the once high-powered Wake Forest offense displayed consistently throughout this game? Did anyone see the new and improved Wake Forest defense shut down a comparatively inexperienced freshman quarterback for the Wolfpack? MJ Morris didn’t set the field on fire with his passing yard stats. He was 18 of 28 for 210 yards. But he had three touchdown passes and ZERO turnovers. He made the plays and got the yardage when needed.
The Wake defense sacked him four times, but other than that had few answers. Three runners, Morris included, picked up 132 yards on the ground in addition to his passing yards. Yes, the defense was playing without all-conference defensive lineman Rondell Bothroyd, but there is enough depth and presumed talent to make up for it for one night.
The Offense Is Slow And Not Meshing
On the other side of the field, Hartman struggled again. If all you do is look at the 398 passing yards with the 60% completion rate, then you would think mission accomplished. But there were three interceptions for the second week in a row. Re-watching the game, as the coaching staff and players also did, makes it clear they were not all on Hartman. But this is not a point of individual blame. The offense is not working in the most critical part of the season. There are fingers to be pointed in many directions.
Hartman, if he spoke about the games, would likely shoulder the blame. That is what a team leader does in public. But Hartman primarily shows up for the post-game press conferences after wins. Yes, he was there after the Clemson loss but walked away from the podium in frustration after a few media questions. He was not made available to the media after the Louisville and NC State losses.
The media communications team at Wake is at the mercy of the players who can apparently choose not to participate. From the time the game ends to the time the media is assembled in a room at the end of the stadium, to when Clawson has the time he spends with the media, it is easily a half hour before any of the players appear in the press conference room. If that is not enough time, wait until Hartman gets to the next level if he has a future in the NFL. Time with QB1 is pretty much a mandate and the post-game cooling-off period is only 15 minutes, per league guidelines.
Plenty Of Issues To Go Around
It was three weeks ago that Clawson said he was disappointed that Hartman was not being considered in the Heisman conversations. No doubt, he will still stand firmly with his quarterback. Because the problems that have created the results of the last two weeks are widespread.
An offensive line that has been touted since Fall camp for its veteran players and an extraordinary level of experience cannot maintain its collective blocks long enough to successfully execute the slow mesh offense right now. Hartman was sacked four times and had to scramble for his life far too often. He has shown an ability to complete passes under pressure. It comes with the offense. But it can’t be the entirety of the offense. Take away the sack yardage stat, because it shouldn’t be part of it, to begin with, and Wake had all of 31 rushing yards. That is a week after getting only 68 the week before at Louisville.
The story is the same. It is not all one problem. The run blocking has been insufficient. The decision-making by Hartman as to when to stick with the run has not been without error. And the running backs themselves have, at times, spent too much dancing in the backfield looking for a bigger play, when four to five yards up the middle would be good enough.
The challenges have no easy answers. It is not a matter of a player or two not doing their job. It is a scheme that is not being executed well enough on both sides of the ball. In some cases, it is the scheme itself that is the issue. Or at the very least how it is being used. The defense, which statistically improved over last year’s poor numbers, has gone backward in terms of being able to get off the field on third and medium or third and long and is giving up chunk yardage on the ground to quarterbacks. The offense…well, we have all seen it and discussed it to a head scratching level.
There is time to fix it, but the clock didn’t just change early Sunday morning. It went into super speed for Wake Forest. There is no downtime or bye weeks, or extra days left to make those fixes. They have three games left. A 9-3 regular season finish would have most giving a slight nod of approval. Anything less than that, all the way down to the previously unthinkable 6-6 is going to cause a lot of questions and a long off-season.