CHARLOTTE — It’s doubtful anyone in college football has learned how to deal with adversity better the nine seniors on this year’s Wake Forest football roster.
They’ve had enough experience at it.
As freshmen, they began their careers by losing to Louisiana-Monroe. As sophomores, they suffered through a second straight 3-9 season, and as juniors, they dealt with a scandal that saw their team’s playbook secretly leaked to multiple opponents.
After all that, a quick two-touchdown deficit to Texas A&M on Friday probably seemed like little more than a minor inconvenience.
The Deacons overcame their early misfortune by scoring 31 unanswered points, then showed their grit again by rallying twice in the fourth quarter for a 55-52 Belk Bowl victory against the Aggies that served as a fitting exclamation point to an amazing four-year turnaround.
“I never had a doubt,” quarterback John Wolford said after an MVP performance in which he threw for 400 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 68 yards more.
“These seniors have been through a lot, so a tough game at the end wasn’t going to faze us, and we got it done. That’s what matters most. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished here. … I’m happy with the way we left it.”
Wake finishes the year at 8-5, one win better than the previous season and a million miles from where it started when Wolford and coach Dave Clawson arrived before the 2014 season.
While much of that dramatic rise can be attributed to the upgrades Clawson and his staff have made to the talent level of the program by recruiting the likes of running back Matt Colburn, tight end Cam Serigne and linebacker Justin Strnad — all of which played major roles against the Aggies — the increased confidence that comes with experience was equally important.
That self-assurance came into play in the opening four minutes Friday after A&M got off to a dominant start by blocking two Dom Maggio punts, both of which either produced or led to touchdowns for a 14-0 lead.
Instead of getting rattled, the Deacons calmly made a minor offensive adjustment that had Wolford taking shorter drops and releasing the ball faster. Once they finally managed a first down or two, they were able up the tempo of their attack and begin executing their game plan.
“I told our offensive coordinator (Warren Ruggiero) before the game ‘go fast,’” Clawson said. “I didn’t know how long it would take. … When you don’t play for a month, it’s a little bit of a feeling out process until you get in a rhythm. Then we got into a rhythm.”
It started with a 50-yard touchdown pass from Wolford to Scottie Washington, who caught nine passes for 138 yards. Before the first quarter was done, Wolford had connected with Tabari Hines for another score and Mike Weaver added the first of his two field goals to turn the 14-0 deficit into a 17-14 lead.
And Wake wasn’t through.
With Colburn adding an effective running game to Wolford’s quick, pinpoint passing and a 59-yard punt return by Jesse Bates III, the Deacons expanded their advantage to 31-14,
It was a similar scenario to the one that played out the last time A&M faced an ACC team in a bowl game. And just as the Aggies did in rallying from a similar deficit against Duke in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl, they roared from behind again.
They narrowed the gap to 10 by halftime, then forged back ahead at 42-41 on a short run by Keith Ford with 1:59 left in the third quarter.
A&M (7-6) threatened to put Wake into an even deeper hole early in the fourth when, after a Wolford fumble, Ford was stopped inches short of the goal line on a second down play. This time, the Aggies runner was unable to get into the end zone. He was tackled in the backfield by Jesse Bates and Zeek Rodney, inducing Aggles interim coach Jeff Banks to kick a field goal.
It was a game-changing decision.
“That was huge, obviously, because it kept it a one-possession game,” Strnad said. “Our offense went right down the field and gave us the opportunity to get another stop.”
Wake’s offense actually came through twice — first on an option run by Cade Carney, who was only in the game because Colburn was on the sideline with a minor injury, then again after A&M had answered right back on Colburn’s tough 1-yard run..
Colburn finished the game with 150 yards on 21 carries. But because his decisive touchdown came with 2:18 still to play, there was concern on the Deacons sideline that too much time was left on the clock for the Aggies to work with.
“At the end of the game, it became hard to manage, because we play much better when we go fast,” Clawson said. “Yet, I didn’t want to give them much time to score. I figured I would take my chance and play fast to make sure we got the points and hope we could make one play on defense.”
Clawson’s faith was rewarded when a defense that was burned for 499 yards through the air and 614 yards overall bowed up and forced A&M quarterback Nick Starkel to throw incomplete on fourth down near midfield — ending a four-hour, 11-minute epic in which the teams combined for 107 points, 1,260 yards and an all-time postseason record 191 plays.
It was an emotional result, especially for a group of seniors whose perseverance was rewarded in a joyous trophy celebration at midfield. It was a far cry from the feeling they had following their disheartening debut in Louisiana four years earlier.
“That’s a heck of a way to go out,” senior linebacker Grant Dawson said. “I’m just kind of in awe right now. I’m living on a cloud and I’m going to stay there as long as I can.
“How far our team has come the last four years is unbelievable. I’m so proud of everybody that’s been a part of it. If somebody would have told me I would have been standing on that stage four years ago, I’d have called them crazy.”