WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest football coach Dave Clawson put an emphasis on improving his team’s defense after it allowed 41 points in a loss to Boston College 12 days ago.
But instead of getting better, the Deacons got worse.
This time they gave up even more points to a Notre Dame team that has struggled so much on offense this season that coach Brian Kelly was compelled to change quarterbacks heading into Saturday’s game at BB&T Field.
First-time starter Ian Book burned Wake for 325 yards passing and the Irish rolled up 241 yards on the ground in a 56-27 dismantling of the Deacons that left Clawson visibly frustrated afterward.
“I don’t think it’s good giving up 56 points to a team that has yet to score 24 all year,” the Wake coach said. “They’ve been struggling on offense, but we gave them some gimmes. We have better talent than to give up big plays like that.”
Clawson said that he and his staff tried to simplify things on defense during their extended week of practice following the BC game in hopes of eliminating the big plays that led to their team’s downfall. The Eagles scored all six of their touchdowns from 27 yards or more yards out.
But instead of eliminating those game-breaking mistakes, the Deacons (2-2) made even more in losing for the fifth time in as many meetings with the eighth-ranked Irish. They still haven’t beaten a top 10 team since 1946.
Things actually started out well enough for Wake, which got stops on Notre Dame’s first two possessions then forced what at the time seemed like a momentum-swinging turnover when reserve cornerback Nasir Greer forced a fumble that fellow freshman Ryan Smenda recovered at the Irish 13.
Things went downhill from there, though.
Although Nick Sciba gave the Deacons a 3-0 lead by kicking a short field goal after three plays went nowhere, it didn’t last long as Notre Dame (4-0) scored touchdowns on its next four possessions to take control.
One play in particular summed up Wake’s defensive struggles. On a third-and-3 situation from the Irish’s own 32, Book threw a short bubble screen to wide receiver Michael Young, who zigged, zagged and outran his way through the Deacons’ secondary for a 66-yard gain. Book snuck into the end zone from the 2 on the next play to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 28-13 late in the first half.
“We have to be more locked in, more focused than we were,” junior cornerback Essang Bassey said. “As much as we thought we fixed it or things that we practiced, we’ve got to get better because obviously, it didn’t work.”
As badly as the Deacons ended the first half, they only got worse to start the second. The Irish scored touchdowns the first four times they touched the ball to break the game wide open.
In all, Notre Dame rolled up 566 yards of total offense, even more than BC piled up the previous week.
Defense, however, wasn’t Wake’s only problem Saturday.
Just as as it did in the BC game, the Deacons’ offense rolled up an impressive yardage total on the ground — 259 yards, to be exact — but had trouble scoring touchdowns once it got into the red zone.
Sciba attempted four field goals in the first half, making two and twice hitting an upright. On the first miss, he had to hustle onto the field after everyone else on his unit had already lined up after apparently not realizing an attempt was upcoming.
Running back Cade Carney, who rushed for 79 yards on 13 carries, said that his team’s red zone inefficiency is “something that we have to fix.”
“We feel so good about moving the ball and that’s why it’s heartbreaking now,” Carney said. “We get inside the red zone and then we stall out. At best case, it’s three points when we should be scoring six. I wish I knew (what’s wrong).”
If there was one bright spot on an otherwise dismal day for the Deacons, it was that both Jamie Newman and Kendall Hinton made positive contributions to the offense in their first appearances of the season.
Newman filled in at quarterback for Sam Hartman — who was just 12 of 24 for 110 yards and three sacks — after the freshman starter “cramped up” and left the game midway through the third quarter. Newman only passed for 29 yards, but rushed for 73 and a touchdown on eight carries.
Hinton, meanwhile, made his debut after sitting out the first three games on suspension for a violation of team rules. He saw action at both wide receiver and quarterback, rushing for 23 yards and a score while catching three passes for 23 yards.
That was about the only thing Wake had to write home about on a day that started with so much promise.
“We had a unique opportunity to do something special,” Clawson said. “Unfortunately we didn’t play well. A lot of the problems we talked about a week ago came back to get us again.
“We’ve got a lot of football left, but Notre Dame outplayed us. I think we have a good football team. I think we’ve got good players. We’ve got to find a way to get more from them.”