WINSTON-SALEM, NC – Football is a game that can change in a flash — whether it’s a lightning delay or a play that changes the entire trajectory of the contest. In a 36-20 Wake Forest win over SEC foe Vanderbilt, it was the former that struck first, with a storm forcing teams to the locker room just minutes after kickoff. They would not restart for exactly two hours.
“So much for the rules to shorten football games,” head coach Dave Clawson joked after the game. “Five-and-a-half hours later, here we are.”
As for the latter, one play gone wrong sent the Deacs from danger to momentum closing the first half. Following a Vanderbilt touchdown that brought the Commodores within three, Wake Forest’s offense quickly shuttered with a three-and-out, seemingly primed to give up the lead.
Vanderbilt ran into punter Ivan Mora first, but the second hit mattered most — a Deacon collided with returner Will Sheppard, and former Commodore Brendon Harris corralled the ball en route to the end zone and a 10-point advantage.
“The special teams play was really a game changing play,” Clawson said. “You get that one and you go up 10. You force [Vanderbilt] to play from behind. I know that’s a tough one in the Vanderbilt locker room.”
“We’re taught to keep our eyes low as we go down there just in case the returner drops the ball,” Harris explained. “This is something we’ve practiced throughout the week. We’ve practiced scoop-and-scoring. It just came [down] to me taking my technique from the practice field to the game and executing.”
The miscue was not Vanderbilt’s first, nor would it be the last. Quarterback AJ Swann’s first drive of the opening half ended with an interception by Malik Mustapha and a Wake Forest field goal.
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A second pick — by Dashawn Jones on the final drive of the half — gifted the Deacs another field goal, but Matthew Dennis sent the 44-yard kick wide.
Wake Forest’s offense wasn’t particularly strong to open the first half either — the Deacs couldn’t convert in the red zone following the first interception. The ensuing drive was stalled by a false start on fourth-and-short.
But, Mitch Griffis and his side of the ball found its bearings on the next two possessions, each ending in six. On third-and-seven, the redshirt sophomore found Jahmal Banks in the back of the end zone for the first score.
The second came after a 14-play, 75-yard drive dominated by the running game.
Griffis finished with a 17-26 line, tossing for 196 yards and two touchdowns. A week after Clawson found points for growth in his quarterback’s game, there was much to be pleased with in the victory.
“He was much more steady, got us into the right place,” Clawson said. “I thought he managed the offense better, made some plays with his feet. I thought it was a step forward. I said this at the beginning of the year, we’re not young, but we are inexperienced. We missed less signals, we had less alignment errors, we had fewer missed assignments. We were more sound today against a better football team. My hope is that this is a team that gets better every week as they get experience.”
Both drives highlighted the offense’s best attribute for the day — the running back room. Despite lead back Justice Ellison being unable to play with a concussion, the Deacs picked up 288 yards on the ground. Demond Claiborne led the way with 26 carries and 165 yards.
“That’s as well as we’ve run the football here in a long, long time,” Clawson said. “We kind of anticipated [Vanderbilt] would play some softer coverages, and we really felt that this was a game where we were gonna have to run the football and run it consistently. And we did.”
“They got in space,” Clawson continued. “It’s the O-line’s job to create the first three yards, and it’s [the running back’s] job anything after that. I thought they had good vision, made some cuts, I love the way they finish with a forward lean. The hardest time to run the football is late in the game with a lead. And that’s two weeks in a row that we were able to do that. So that is a very, very encouraging sign for our football team.”
As a true freshman last season, Claiborne only had 57 yards on 14 attempts, a number he eclipsed in last week’s victory over Elon with 70 and a score. With today’s performance, the sophomore sprinted past his career total and gave life to a ground game that sorely needed it.
“This is amazing,” Claiborne said. “We worked so hard in the offseason for this opportunity. We made it happen as a group.”
“It was awesome to see the run game do as [well] as it did,” center Luke Petitbon added. “It’s been something that we worked on really hard in the offseason. Everyone takes a lot of pride and seeing that work out on the field was awesome. I was really fired up.”
Tate Carney, elevated to the No. 2 role Saturday, shined in his first true game action with the Deacons. The redshirt freshman played in three contests last season without registering any statistics, but burst onto the scene with 117 yards, including a 74-yard scamper down the sideline. He barrelled over a defender in the process.
“I love Tater,” Claiborne said. “When he gets in the game, I’m so excited for him. He’s a motivator. He’s inspirational.”
Claiborne and Carney proved to be an unlikely duo to achieve something Wake Forest hasn’t in years — produce two 100-yard rushers in a game. The last tandem to do so was Christian Beal Smith and Kenneth Walker with 130 and 107 respectively against Campbell in 2020.
Along with Banks’ grab in the first half, Griffis notched his second touchdown pass in the fourth quarter on a 24-yard toss to Ke’Shawn Williams, capping off a seven-play, 50-yard drive. Williams finished the game with a team-high 92 yards on five catches.
Defensively, Wake Forest was anything but consistent, yet found a way to hold a solid offense to 20 points. The Deacs forced two punts and three turnover-on-downs — including a goal-line stop — while securing two interceptions.
“Guys just swarming around, having fun,” Mustapha said. “We have this identity for ourselves — black hat mentality. We made that a point of emphasis today, turning the ball over, the goal line stand. After a score, we didn’t let up. We took it with a grain of salt. We’re only scratching the surface [of what] we can become.”
The three remaining drives were touchdowns, a result manifested from big-chunk plays. A 50-yard pass led to Vanderbilt’s first score, a 48-yarder the second. The third touchdown of the game was from 30 yards out.
“You can’t give up explosives,” Clawson said. “We missed [a] tackle, which led to a touchdown. Our biggest goal this year is to give up less explosives. Every time we give up an explosive, there’s a touchdown. We played really, really good defense today…but we can’t let the ball get over our head and we can’t miss tackles in space. Those are the things that, as excited as I am about the win today, I know if we don’t get corrected [will] catch up with us.”
With the win, Wake Forest will travel to Norfolk next Saturday to face off against Old Dominion. Kickoff is set for 12pm ET on ESPN2/U.