Wake Forest has a lot of work to do for its post-season resume in the final two weeks of the regular season. It starts this weekend with the Senior Day/home finale against Syracuse. There are as many as 22 seniors making their final appearance at Truist Field as Wake Forest hosts the Orange.
Both teams are already bowl-eligible. But both are far off the path they were on in mid-October. Syracuse is 6-4 overall and 3-3 in the ACC. But the Orange have lost four in a row. Blowing a late-game lead over Clemson was the tipping point. They fell to the Tigers 27-21. And that was the first step in a losing streak that hit a crescendo last week with a 38-3 blasting at home at the hands of Florida State.
Trying To Find The Footing
The rhythm of the Syracuse ups and downs during the season can be found in quarterback Garrett Shrader. In the early part of the season, he was one the best quarterbacks in the country. In the back half of the season, he has battled injuries and inconsistency. After two weeks off, he was a meager six of 16 passing for 65 yards and no touchdowns in the loss at Florida State.
When asked earlier this week what he saw in the quarterback’s subpar performance against FSU, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers deferred to discussing the offense as a whole. “I think the biggest thing on offense, based off of what’s happened for a couple of weeks, is we all need to work together,” Babers said. “And we need to stay together in order to change the performance that we’re putting out on the football field. I don’t think anybody’s happy with the point total.”
Riding The Ups And Downs
Likewise, there was a time this season when Sean Tucker was statistically among the elite running backs in the country. He has been physically banged up but has been playing through it. Still, it has resulted in fewer carries over the last five games than what he had been getting, and less impact from him. Even with that, he is only 131 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season.
Like with any team on a multi-game slide, Babers has to measure the emotional and mental temperature of this team on a daily basis. “We understand that we are in a four-game swing the other way,” he said. “Nobody is more upset about it than everybody that is in this room. We’re also going to stay together. And we understand not only how difficult winning games are (sic) but how you have to let a week go so that you can get your mind right for the next week.”
Wake Forest Has Its Own Stumbles
Few understand Babers’ dilemma quite like Wake’s Dave Clawson. About a month ago, the Demon Deacons were ranked in the top 15 in the country. They were 6-1 with the only loss being in double overtime to eventual division champion Clemson. And they were being lauded for hanging in there with Clemson. Then came the consecutive losses to Louisville, NC State, and North Carolina. Wake is now 6-4 overall and 2-4 in ACC play. It became clear that if it were not for a very soft out-of-conference schedule, Wake Forest might not even be eligible right now.
Clawson has turned the message to Wake still having three games ahead on the schedule, including a bowl game, and that it can still be a high-end season. “We’re sitting here at 6-4 and we still have three games to play. We’re just trying to go 1-0 and get number seven,” he said earlier this week. “And if we can do that, I think we set ourselves up to have one of the better seasons in the history of the school.”
Clawson spent a lot of time this week talking about expectations and the raised standards at Wake Forest, created in large part by last year’s 11-3 record. He said it is the reason people, himself included, are disappointed with this season, and he said he embraces the higher expectation mentality.
“We lost some tough games against some good football teams. Of all these games, the one I’m most disappointed in is Louisville because of that third quarter. But those other ones, we showed up to play and we competed our butts off. When you play good football teams, you don’t always execute as well as you’d like to,” he said.
Part of the concern that has hit the team has been the performance of the offense. Wake was once one of the higher-scoring teams in the country this season. But Louisville and NC State each held Wake Forest to just 21 points. In both games, turnovers were the storyline. The aforementioned Louisville game was jaw-dropping in that regard. Seven turnovers in the third quarter with starting quarterback Sam Hartman’s name hung around them was the news of the game. Any reasonable review of the game footage shows that not all of the mistakes were Hartman’s, but when you are QB1, you get the stats, good and bad.
Faster Start Needed
The fact that they were not all on Hartman made the assessment of the offense a little more alarming. There were breakdowns in the pass blocking, receivers not completing their tasks, and no running game to speak of. “The better the team you play the less your margin for error,” Clawson added. After the NC State game, he talked about there being plenty of blame to go around for the mistakes.
The Demon Deacons have developed a late-in-the-season habit of falling behind early. Then they spend the rest of the game in catch-up mode. “We haven’t won as many close games as we usually have,” the head coach said in talking about what happens when you fall behind early so frequently.
The task does not get easier this week. Wake Forest will be facing a Syracuse offense that still has a lot of potential. The Demon Deacons will be doing so without defensive back Malik Mustapha, one of the more physical players on the team. Clawson said the sophomore will miss the last two games of the regular season, but he said he hopes to have him back by the bowl game.
How The Finish The Season Is What Gets Remembered
Wake will also be honoring 22 seniors Saturday night. Some will actually be back next year. But with those decisions still to be made in the weeks to come, they get acknowledged at the last home game of the season. Hartman will be one of those recognized, but he will not be back, having said this week that it is time for him to try his luck at the next level.
Wake Forest has two games ahead that are winnable but far from a sure thing. An 8-4 regular season record will still have some bad taste to it for a month or two because of what could have been. But if they can manage to add in a bowl victory, that potential 9-4, (and 20-7 over two years), will look pretty decent once you hit the off-season.
The University of Virginia
It is worth noting that both Clawson and Babers opened their respective press conferences this week with comments on the school shooting at the University of Virginia that left three members of the football team dead.
“It’s really sad and tragic,” Clawson said. “But unfortunately, it seems to have become a regular occurrence in our country.” He said he talked with the team in great detail about it knowing that no campus is immune from the possibility. “I can’t imagine what they are going through up there. So we are thinking of them and have heavy hearts for their suffering.”
A visibly emotional Babers called it a “Disturbing time.” He added, “Once again it puts us back into what’s truly important; family and football, and putting those things in the right perspective.” Syracuse played Virginia earlier in the year. Babers said knowing that they meet with the players after the game, and “There’s usually a handshake or an interaction, and there’s love transferred between one another,” made the loss of life all that much more personal.