Bowl game on the line for Deacons at Duke

For the second straight year bowl eligibility is up for grabs in matchup

The visiting team has won three straight in the annual matchup between Duke and Wake Forest, with this year’s game in Durham at Wallace Wade Stadium. (Allison Lee Isley / The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

For the second year in a row, Duke and Wake Forest close out the regular season with one team fighting for its postseason life.

Last season, the Blue Devils traveled to Winston-Salem looking to get their sixth win of the year against the bowl-bound Deacs. They succeeded and went on to win the Quick Lane Bowl.

This year, Duke (7-4) has already earned its bowl spot, while Wake (5-6) needs a win to have a chance to extend its season with a third straight bowl appearance.

“Our guys are excited,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said. “They know what’s at stake. It’s like a playoff. It’s win or go home. There are a lot of seniors on this football team who don’t want this to end.”

Wake had a chance to get bowl-eligible last week on Senior Day against Pitt, but the Panthers were able to pull away from the Deacs in the second half, leaving Wake’s players — particularly the seniors, in desperation mode.

“Just like always, it’s a one-week season,” said senior offensive lineman Phil Haynes. “Now more than ever. All the other guys know that we have to win this game. Every weight we’ve lifted, every sprint we’ve run have been for this game.”

“We’re gonna practice and prepare like it could be our last game,” said defensive tackle Zeek Rodney, “because it could be. And we don’t want it to be. Not for us seniors, especially.”

Wake will be attempting to extend its season with an undermanned squad. The Deacons have been ravaged by injuries this year. They lost their starting quarterback for the season two games ago, and part of the reason Wake couldn’t hold its halftime lead against Pitt was fatigue on a defense that had lost several starters, most recently defensive back Amari Henderson.

For the second straight week, Clawson scrapped his high-tempo offense to help buy rest time for his weary defense.

“We tried to play slower on offense in order to keep our defense rested,” he said. “We couldn’t get off the field on third down, and that’s where our lack of depth really kills us. We get past the 70th or 75th snap, and we get fatigued. We’re playing with guys that aren’t ready to play right now, or guys that aren’t ready to play as much as they’ve been playing. In critical situations, that’s where a lot of our breakdowns were.”

The Blue Devils have also been hammered by injuries and limp into the finale with their top two linebackers, Joe Giles-Harris and Ben Humpreys, both hobbled by serious injuries. They’ve attempted to play through them, but last week Humpreys was carted off at Clemson.

“We’re still working our way back,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “Still trying to figure out everything (about who can play). When you look at the totality of this team and what they’ve accomplished — we’ve had 23 players at this point that have missed games, including 13 starters. We’ve had seven season-ending surgeries. … Literally every single game, we’ve had change. We have not had the same lineup for two games this year.”

Neither coach is willing to use their injury problems as an excuse.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Clawson said. “Duke’s an excellent team, and making a bowl would mean a lot. It’s going to be a challenge.”

“You can’t just pick the good times to be your best,” Cutcliffe said. “The best version of yourself is required at all times. We have to have everybody being a warrior for every play. We need a little gut check right now as to what we’re going to do moving forward.”

Both teams expect to get back some of their injured players. Duke running back Brittain Brown played for just the second time since September. Cutcliffe expects to increase his playing time this week.

Clawson, meanwhile, expects to get back running back Matt Colburn, who missed last week’s game. 

Still, it will be two teams with postseason expectations limping into the finale, both coming off losses and hoping to see their play improve this week.

“It’s gonna have to,” said Wake linebacker Justin Strnad. “It has to. We have to win next week. We have to muscle in, 100 percent. We’ve got to give it everything we got.”

Duke needs to find a way to match Wake’s intensity.

“That’s us every week,” Cutcliffe said. “If we don’t match — if we can’t exceed the people we play in energy and intensity, it’s not going to go well.”

“Our goal is to make a bowl,” Clawson said. “That goal is alive and well.”