Wake Forest travels to Death Valley a week after FSU loss

Demon Deacons, who fell shy of an upset against Seminoles, look to knock off defending champion Clemson

The Demon Deacons travel to Clemson this weekend looking to bounce back from a loss to Florida State. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

When you’re the coach of an ACC football team and the league schedule makers decide to have you playing heavyweights Florida State and Clemson in back-to-back weeks, you can either get angry or look at it the way Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson did Tuesday.

“I’m not sure the last time someone had to play Florida State and Clemson back-to-back,” he said. “I want to thank the ACC office for thinking that we are a team capable of doing that.”

Clawson was being sarcastic, of course. But the fact of the matter is, unfavorable scheduling aside, his Deacons have progressed far enough over his first three-and-a-half seasons as their coach to believe they can handle such a daunting task.

Wake Forest at Clemson
Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.  |  Saturday, Oct. 7, noon  |  ESPN2

Wake came within an eyelash of knocking off the Seminoles at home last Saturday, outgaining them by more than 100 yards, recording five sacks and leading almost the entire game before finally falling 26-19 on a 40-yard touchdown pass with less than a minute remaining.

Though the Deacons (4-1, 1-1 ACC) might not have made the statement they wanted when it let FSU off the hook in a game it could easily and probably should have won, it sure did get Dabo Swinney’s attention.

The Clemson coach warned his defending national champions and anyone else who would listen Tuesday not take the unheralded Deacons lightly when the ACC Atlantic Division rivals meet at Death Valley.

He said doing so could have damaging consequences to the Tigers’ hopes of getting back to college football’s playoff for the third straight season.

“This is a very, very good football team and if anybody says otherwise they have no clue what they are talking about,” Swinney said at his weekly press conference. “We have not played and will not play another team that plays as hard as this Wake Forest team.”

As the Deacons learned against FSU, though, playing hard isn’t enough when facing a nationally elite opponent.

It also takes execution, especially in the red zone, where Wake settled for two early field goals instead of touchdowns against the Seminoles.

As well as the Deacons played, they left the door open for their opponent by turning the ball over twice, missing an extra point and allowing a long kickoff return that negated both their momentum and a 10-point lead. And FSU was only too happy to take advantage, thanks to one costly late-game breakdown in pass coverage.

“I feel like besides three plays, our defense played really well (but) those three plays against a good team, that can lose you the game,” sophomore safety Jessie Bates III said. “Just knowing when you’re playing a good team like that, the margin for error is very small. You have to focus for all four quarters and just have that short-term memory and continue to play, play after play.”

The task of staying focused will get even more difficult this week in what promises to be a hostile environment at Death Valley.

Though there’s no comparison between Clemson’s home field and Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium, offensive tackle Phil Haynes believes the experience of already having played in front of an unfriendly crowd once this season will help the Deacons know what to expect when things get loud Saturday.

He also thinks it’s an advantage not an obstacle to be playing Clemson the week after Florida State.

“There are a lot of good defenses in the ACC but they’re by far the best two,” Haynes said. “Having them back-to-back is great for us as far as preparation and going out there and playing Florida State and looking at the film and correcting our technique. They’re pretty much the same teams talent-wise.”