RALEIGH — Kentavius Street did a double-take when he first saw the score of Wake Forest’s 64-43 victory at Syracuse last Saturday.
He thought maybe he was looking at a basketball game.
“It was surprising,” the junior defensive end said, “because so far this season, none of our ACC guys have scored that many points.”
That actually was the case until the Deacons rolled up a school-record 734 yards on the Orange and piled up the most points in the 31-year history of the Carrier Dome, despite being without their best receiver and down to just one healthy running back.
If coach Dave Clawson’s team wasn’t already playing well enough to have caught the Wolfpack’s attention before Saturday, having already qualified for a bowl for the second straight season, then it surely has now.
“They’re second in the ACC in scoring behind Clemson, No. 1 in red zone offense,” State coach Dave Doeren said. “We’ve got to make plays on the ball. We’ve got to win the line of scrimmage. They have a lot of tricks. Defensively, we definitely have a strong challenge this week.”
The Wolfpack (7-3, 5-1 ACC) got some of its defensive mojo back at Boston College last Saturday after suffering through two forgettable performances against top-10 teams Notre Dame and Clemson. But even though it held the Eagles to just two scores in a 17-14 road win, State still got burned for better than 230 yards rushing for the third straight week.
That’s been a particularly frustrating turn of events for a defense that once led the ACC and ranked as high as sixth nationally against the run.
But even if the Wolfpack does manage to contain running back Matt Colburn, who gained 237 by himself against Syracuse, that will only be half the battle against the suddenly potent Deacons (6-4, 3-3). Not only does senior quarterback John Wolford lead the ACC in passing efficiency, but he’s also dangerous when he gets out of the pocket and runs, as his 10 rushing touchdowns this season attest.
Those numbers are even more impressive considering that Wake’s top receiving threat Greg Dortch has missed the past two games with a season-ending injury and that just one year ago, the Deacons finished dead last in the conference in scoring with an average of just 20.4 points per game.
“They’ve improved a lot as an offense, obviously,” linebacker Airius Moore said. “They’ve got a lot of really good players. We’re going to have to come this week.”
While Notre Dame physically punished the Wolfpack with its size and strength and Clemson ot the job done with speed and skill, star defensive end Brandon Chubb said that Wake’s offense fits in somewhere between the two extremes.
“They’re kind of like Syracuse when it comes to (run-pass options) and the speed that they play at,” Chubb said of an Orange team that scored 25 against the Wolfpack back on Sept. 30. “We just have to be prepared for it.”
The Wolfpack probably didn’t need the Deacons to score 64 points last week to know that. Before winning at BB&T Field in its last trip there two seasons ago, State lost its previous six games on Wake’s home field.
“It just hasn’t been a place or a team we’ve played well against on the road as a program,” Doeren said. “That was one of the things we’ve talked about, always elevating our program and erasing things that used to be that way.
“We played very well last time we were down there, but that hasn’t been traditionally how NC State plays at Wake. So not only do we have to do that again, but this is probably the best Wake team we’ve played since I’ve been here.”
Saturday’s game will be the first of two straight against in-state opponents for State. With a bowl bid already secured and the ACC Atlantic Division championship out of reach, NC State’s two remaining matchups with Wake and arch-rival North Carolina have taken on added significance.
By winning both, the Wolfpack can lay claim to the unofficial state championship popularized by Doeren’s predecessor Tom O’Brien.
“We don’t get to play everybody, but having a better record than all of them at the end of the year, those things come into play in recruiting,” Doeren said. “That’s one thing that makes this state unique, having four conference teams in the state. We get to play two of the three and I think it matters to our guys quite a bit.
“Getting to play at their place, second straight week on the road leading up to what comes next, I think our guys are going to be really focused on what we need to do.”