CLEMSON, SC – Against a team like Clemson, in an environment like Memorial Stadium, opponents must take advantage of every opportunity given. Instead, Wake Forest missed its chances and gave just as many back, turning a winnable game into a 17-12 loss.
For a team that was on its heels after a demoralizing loss to Georgia Tech, competing against Clemson can be seen as a rather large positive, but moral victories weren’t what the team came for.
“10 years into this, I think we’re past moral victories,” head coach Dave Clawson said. “The first half of the ODU game and, really, the whole Georgia Tech game, that was really bad football. I think we got better in the last two weeks. We’ll see in the next seven weeks how much better.”
“It was a great, great effort by our football team,” Clawson added. “In a lot of ways, I feel better about our team now than I did after any of the wins. I thought our guys competed for 60 minutes.”
Right from the outset, the team had a shot to stun Clemson with significant blows.
A fumbled first-quarter exchange between quarterback Cade Klubnik and the runner gifted the Deacs possession inside the 10-yard line. Four plays later, including two errant passes by Mitch Griffis, Wake Forest left the field without points.
“I don’t regret the fourth down decision,” Clawson said. “But, if you have the ball inside the five against Clemson, you gotta score touchdowns.”
Late in the second quarter, Wake Forest rushed twice and took a sack, leaving time on the clock for a potential half-closing drive for Clemson. Only, Tigers’ returner Tyler Brown muffed the punt at the 31-yard line. With an opportunity to tie the game, though, the Deacs rushed on four of their five plays, and Matthew Dennis missed the 39-yard kick.
Wake Forest’s only points of the first half would come on a seven-play drive — beginning at the Clemson 45 — that died in the red zone.
Especially in the first half, Wake Forest appeared to be operating the offense with training wheels. On a third-and-seven at his own 41, trailing by just four, Griffis handed the ball off. The redshirt sophomore only attempted 10 passes in the half, completing four. In turn, the running backs combined for 26 carries.
“As well as we played on defense, I didn’t want to lose the game on third-and-long,” Clawson said. “I didn’t want to get strip-sacked. I didn’t want to turn it over. If we could…punt it and flip field position and play defense, I thought it gave us a chance.”
Additionally, Wake Forest was stunted by Clemson’s approach to third downs. The Tigers consistently brought heavy pressure and got to Griffis, who often took hard hits. The Deacs finished the game 2-12 in those situations.
“They’ve got some really good pass rushers,” Clawson said. “They blitz well. We didn’t make the plays on the perimeter that we made a year ago. Last year, when they blitzed us like that, we had contested catches on the outside. This year, I don’t know if we hit really any of those on third down.”
Stout play from Wake Forest’s defense kept the team in the game. Holding Clemson to just 338 yards of offense, the “black hats” stopped the Tigers on nine of 15 third downs and forced four three-and-outs.
“We swarmed the ball,” Kevin Pointer, who recovered Klubnik’s fumble, said. “On the D-line, we held up. That was the goal coming into the game, was to be that force.”
The team’s best shot to make a claim for the win came in the third quarter. A third-down roughing the passer bailed the offense out in Clemson territory, but another opportunity inside the 20 ended in just three points.
But Wake Forest trailed by just four points, and the defense continued to provide the chances. Following Clemson’s third-quarter field goal, the Tigers were forced off the field on back-to-back possessions — one ending with a missed 51-yard kick, the other on a three-and-out.
The offense, though, couldn’t muster any form of an attack, managing just three plays on consecutive drives and a combined two yards.
“That’s obviously disappointing,” Griffis noted. “You want to play complimentary football. That’s how good football teams win. Offense, defense…everybody’s helping. We’re playing a really good defense in a tough environment, but that’s no excuse. Still gotta move the ball. That is frustrating.”
“It’d be nice to be really good on both sides of the ball in the same year,” Clawson said. “[But] that’s football.”
And, for all the positive play from the defense, Clemson eventually had to break through. After a 15-yard completion on third down, Klubnik relied on his running back. Will Shipley promptly carved through the Deacons for 18 yards, and on the next play, powered into the end zone for the knockout punch.
Though Wake Forest was able to march down the field for its first and only touchdown of the game minutes later, the chance had already passed.
“It’s hard,” Griffis said of his feelings after the loss. “Every guy busts their ass, hours on end everyday — physically, mentally exhausting themselves to the point where they just gotta get out of the facility because they’re like, ‘I’m about to drive myself nuts.’ And then, they stay an extra hour after that. So it’s just hard.”
But, despite the loss, there is still hope for the future. A lot of football is left to be played.
“We just competed our tails off and had a chance to win,” Griffis continued. “That should show us where our programs at. We pride ourselves that we were right there. [But] I didn’t come here to be right there. We want to get over the hump. That’s the great thing about football. You get another opportunity next week, and I know those guys are excited and this won’t faze us.”