Deacons face first ‘heavyweight’ in FSU

After dispatching two overmatched foes, Wake Forest gets its first test of the season from the visiting Seminoles

Rondell Bothroyd and the Wake Forest defense will get their first test of the season when Florida State visits Winston-Salem on Saturday. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

Officially, the Wake Forest football team improved to 2-0 with Saturday’s 41-16 win against Norfolk State.

But as coach Dave Clawson is quick to point out, the 2021 season doesn’t actually begin until this week when his Deacons take on Florida State in their ACC opener at Truist Field.

“We won and were able to stay healthy,” Clawson said after the routine victory against the FCS opponent. “Obviously, the challenge of the season is to be able to take a big step forward a week from now against Florida State. We are where we need to be.

“When the schedule comes out, you look at it and say, ‘Hey, we have to get those first two.’ We did that, and from now on it’s going to be a heavyweight fight every single week.”

This will be the second straight year in which Wake has hosted its Atlantic Division rival thanks to a scheduling quirk brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Seminoles will present the Deacons with their most challenging test of the young season, they are nowhere near the formidable foe they once were.

Not only did Wake break a seven-year losing streak to FSU with a 22-20 win last October, but coach Mike Norvell’s team is off to an 0-2 start this season. Its latest loss was especially painful, an upset at the hands of FCS foe Jacksonville State in which the Seminoles allowed a decisive 59-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play.

With FSU still rebuilding, NC State suffering two key season-ending injuries on defense, Boston College losing its starting quarterback and Clemson potentially vulnerable after its offense sputtered in an opening week loss to Georgia, a win would help position the Deacons — at least for the time being — to become the primary challenger to the six-time defending champion Tigers in the Atlantic.

“I’m excited,” quarterback Sam Hartman said. “It’s a big opportunity. It’s one of those games you’ve got circled since the beginning of the season.”

Hartman and his offensive teammates are off to a productive and efficient start in preparation for the ACC opener. In their first 18 drives led by their starting quarterback, the Deacons have scored 12 times (10 touchdowns, two field goals). They are averaging a balanced 220 yards passing and 162 yards rushing per game and have put up 41 or more points in both games against lesser competition.

More importantly, Hartman has yet to commit a turnover this season.

But as promising as that start has been, the fourth-year sophomore said there’s still plenty of room left for improvement now that the schedule is getting ready to grow some teeth.

“I think we have work to do, but I think we are executing right now at a high level,” Hartman said. “We know what we need to do, and I think we’re all kind of on the same page. We’re all grading out high and we’re playing well.”

While Wake’s defense has also been solid through the first two weeks, Clawson saw several potential red flags against Norfolk State that he plans to address this week in preparation for FSU.

Among them was the Spartans’ 8-of-16 conversion rate on third downs, helping them build a nearly 17-minute advantage in time of possession. Another was the success quarterback Juwan Carter had in avoiding the pass rush and making plays with his scrambling ability.

The Deacons will face an even more talented mobile quarterback this week in FSU’s McKenzie Milton.

But they’ll also have reinforcements to help stop him with the return of defensive end Jasheen Davis — who had a team-leading nine tackles and 1.5 sacks in the season opener against Old Dominion — and All-ACC candidate cornerback Nasir Greer. Both players were held out of the Norfolk State game for precautionary reasons.

“They have little muscle pulls that were probably 80%,” Clawson said. “If this was our last game of the season and we had to win to go to the ACC championship or get to a bowl, those guys would have played.

“Sometimes you take that calculated risk, can we win this one without them? With the depth we now have at safety, rather than play Nasir at 80% and risking him being at 60% next week, we made the decision to not play him and let him get back to full strength. And I fully expect Jasheen to play as well.”

As important a game as this is for the Deacons in terms of the Atlantic Division standings, it’s also their real first opportunity to find out just who they are as a team.

“Fourth quarter is where a team’s personality comes out. So next week is really going to show because we’re going to have to play four quarters,” said defensive end Rondell Bothroyd, who recorded a sack and a blocked punt against Norfolk State. “We have a lot of tough guys, and I think we’re going to show what we’re about (against FSU).”