Deacons ‘run’ away with 23-16 upset of Virginia Tech

Wake Forest contained the Hokies' potent running game and got three interceptions from a freshman walk-on to knock off the nation's No. 19 team

Wake Forest's Nick Anderson intercepts a pass intended for Virginia Tech's James Mitchell during the second half of the Deacons' win Saturday (Winston-Salem Journal/Andrew Dye)

Wake Forest kicked off the most difficult stretch of its 2020 football schedule with an upset of No. 19 Virginia Tech.

And the Deacons did it by beating the Hokies at their own game.

Running the ball effectively and coming up with big plays at just the right times defensively, including three interceptions from walk-on safety Nick Anderson, coach Dave Clawson’s team jumped ahead early and never trailed on the way to a 23-16 win at Truist Field.

It was Wake’s third straight win — and second against an ACC opponent — since starting the season at 0-2.

Virginia Tech (3-2, 3-2 ACC) came into the game leading the ACC in rushing at 312 yards per game, nearly double the Deacons’ average. But with Christian Beal-Smith churning out 129 yards and Kenneth Walker adding 66 more, Wake (3-2, 2-2) outgained its opponent 236-210 on the ground to hold off the Hokies after taking the lead for good just before halftime.

Three thoughts

1. While time of possession was nearly even — the Deacons eked out a slim 18-second advantage — Wake did a good job of taking Tech’s offense out of its rhythm by keeping it off the field with long, sustained drives.

It started the game with a seven-play, 92-yard drive that helped build an early 10-0 lead. Then after the Hokies rallied to tie the game, the Deacons chewed up most of the second quarter with an epic 17-play, 75-yard march that resulted in what proved to be the deciding touchdown, a six-yard run by Walker 1:35 before halftime. Wake also had a 13-play, 5:24 drive in the fourth quarter to set up the field goal that ultimately put the game away.

2. All three of Anderson’s interceptions were game-changers. The first came on a tipped pass from Tech’s Hendon Hooker in the end zone on the final play of the half to keep the Hokies from answering Wake’s late touchdown and tying the game going into the break. The second came during the third quarter at the Deacons’ 14-yard line to help preserve the seven-point lead. The true freshman walk-on then sealed the victory by picking off Hooker on the game’s final possession to end Tech’s last gasp attempt at tying the game. The interceptions extended Wake’s streak to 14 straight games with at least one forced turnover.

3. Hokies running back Kahlil Herbert came into the game leading the nation in all-purpose yardage with an average of 240.5 yards per game, but with Anderson and All-American end Carlos “Boogie” Basham leading the way, The Deacons limited him to just 87. Herbert was averaging 148 yards and 9.7 yards per carry on the ground. On this day, however, he managed only 64 yards for a 3.4 yard-per-carry average.

Number to know

23 — The number of consecutive games in which Basham has recorded a tackle for a loss. It took him until the fourth quarter to extend the streak on Saturday, but it came at an opportune time. Basham’s sack of Tech quarterback Hooker on a third down play forced the Hokies to try a 52-yard field goal that was no good, preserving a two-score lead. Basham’s last game without a TFL was on Oct. 20, 2018, against Florida State. He has at least one in 28 of his last 30 games.

They said it

“We came out there, our mindset was to stop the run and make them beat us throwing the ball. We showed that our secondary, if you try to test us, we’d be ready for it.”

— Wake Forest safety Nick Anderson

Player of the game

Nick Anderson, Wake Forest safety — Anderson is still a walk-on, but it’s only a matter of time before he’s put on scholarship. Coming off a nine-tackle effort in last week’s game against Virginia, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Virginia native didn’t just have those three interceptions. He also led the Deacons with 11 tackles from his safety spot. His play was so spectacular and story so unlikely that his teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders after his game-clinching interception.

Critical thinking

Dave Clawson is one of the most underrated coaches in the country, let alone the ACC. So when his Deasons were given an unscheduled three-week break from ACC play because of COVID-19 postponements, he was able to regroup his team and turn things around after an 0-2 start that had a lot of people writing the Deacons off.

The improvement started with 66-14 win in a nonconference game against replacement opponent Campbell. Then after two weeks off, Wake finished strong to beat Virginia on the road for its first ACC win. Now, after showing even more growth and knocking off a ranked opponent, the Deacons are suddenly on track for a successful season. It won’t be easy because the remaining schedule is tough, but a fifth straight winning record is certainly within reach.