Coaches — football coaches in particular — are notorious for overusing the cliche that their team’s most important game of the season is the one that’s coming up next on the schedule.
Last week, though, that might actually have been the case for Dave Clawson and his young Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Playing for the first time in three weeks and in a competitive game against an FBS opponent for the first time in a month because of COVID-19 postponements, Clawson and his team were in danger of seeing their already disjointed season fall into further disarray with a negative outcome against Virginia.
But after allowing an early lead to slip away into a tie game early in the fourth quarter, Wake struck for two touchdowns in a five-play span to take control on the way to a 40-23 win at Truist Field. Clawson hopes it will be the turning point for a successful completion of the 2020 campaign.
“This football team has to be an ascending team,” Clawson said afterward. “But when you’re young, you need these nuggets and these wins to keep it going.
“Tuesday practice would have been tough at 1-3, so this was a really big win for momentum, to keep our season going and to give the guys a shot of confidence.”
Though the Deacons will never know what that practice would have been like coming off a loss, the positive vibes created by a Saturday’s win — combined with the 66-14 blowout they produced against Campbell in their previous outing — were noticeable to veteran players such as All-ACC defensive end Carlos Basham Jr.
“Getting our first ACC win, all across the board, was a big confidence boost for us,” Basham said. “I feel like (Tuesday) practice was very up-tempo. There wasn’t too much coaching going on because we were doing the right things. It was more of us just dialing in for this week.”
Wake (2-2, 1-2 ACC) is going to have to be dialed in moving forward. And not just for the coming week.
Its schedule is arguably the toughest in the ACC. And perhaps the entire country.
The gauntlet began with a date against national championship favorite Clemson and continued the following week with a trip to NC State, which jumped into the national rankings this week after a 4-1 start.
Things won’t get any easier from here on out. Starting with Saturday’s game against No. 19 Virginia Tech in Winston-Salem, the Deacons still have remaining games against the ACC’s three other ranked teams — No. 14 North Carolina, No. 11 Miami and No. 3 Notre Dame. The other three games are all on the road at Syracuse, Duke and Louisville.
“We’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us,” Clawson said. “So we need to continue to get these (young) guys better. Every time they go out and make plays, I think it helps build to where we think we can get these guys.”
The Deacons got big plays when they needed it against UVa.
On the first play after the Cavaliers had tied the game at 23, sophomore Kenneth Walker took a handoff from quarterback Sam Hartman and went 75 yards for the touchdown that put his team back ahead. Wake then recovered a muff on the ensuing kickoff and scored again four plays later, this time on a nine-yard run by Walker to put the game away.
The Deacons finished the game with 483 total yards and 40 points. They might need at least that many to keep up with a Virginia Tech offense that leads the ACC in rushing at 312 yards per game and whose average of 42.0 points is second only to Clemson.
The challenge will be even greater because unlike Virginia, for which Wake had an extra week to prepare, the team must turn the page and get ready for the Hokies on much shorter notice.
“This season has been weird, with the surprise bye weeks, for sure. But it’s just like any other year to just have a week to prepare for another team,” junior offensive guard Sean Maginn said. “It’s nothing really new for us. What it is now is just staying on top of what you need to get done and knowing the game plan.”