Deacons hope to continue winning ways after familiar fast start

Wake Forest, unbeaten and ranked No. 24 in the country, wants to avoid another midseason stumble

Wake Forest has featured a balanced offensive attack in its 4-0 start, complementing its passing game with a trio of running backs that includes Michigan transfer Christian Turner. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

At 4-0 and ranked 24th in the nation, Wake Forest has become something of an overnight sensation on the national college football scene.

You’ll excuse the Deacons if they’re not throwing any parties to celebrate their “arrival.”

That’s because, minus the attention, they’re used to being in this position.

This is the fourth time in the past six years that Wake has started a season by winning at least its first four games. But on each of the first three occasions, it has failed to sustain the early momentum.

In 2017 and ’19, the Deacons finished 8-5. In 2016, they went 7-6.

So while many of those around them are getting excited about their newly minted status as an unexpected frontrunner in the ACC’s suddenly wide-open Atlantic Division, linebacker Luke Masterson and his teammates aren’t getting caught up in the moment.

“We’ve been here before,” said Masterson, a sixth-year senior captain who recorded nine tackles and a pair of sacks in Wake’s most recent victory, an impressive 37-17 win at Virginia last Friday night.

“In 2019 we were actually 5-0, and we kind of fell off a bit. It’s up to the coaches and the leaders on this team to not let us get complacent, treat every week the same way we have and keep this thing going.”

While the Deacons don’t need any reminders of their past stumbles, they’ll get one anyway when Louisville pays a visit to Winston-Salem on Saturday.

Wake was 5-0 and ranked 19th the last time the Cardinals came to Truist Field in 2019. But it was never the same after absorbing a 62-59 loss in the second-highest scoring football game in ACC history.

Between that and a 45-21 loss at Louisville last year in a game played following a four-week COVID layoff, the Deacons are well aware of what to expect from the Cardinals (3-1, 2-0 ACC).

“Every week is a new season. It has a new challenge,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said. “Right now, we’re a confident football team. But hey, Louisville is coming to town and that’s always a tough game for us.”

The Deacons (4-0, 1-0) appear better equipped to match up with the Cardinals — and sustain their winning ways throughout the rest of the season — because of an improved defense and some unaccustomed depth thanks to the return of nine “super seniors” exercising the extra year of eligibility awarded all players by the NCAA.

Those two factors were on full display Friday in Charlottesville when Wake used its abundance of fresh, experienced legs to hold Virginia and prolific quarterback Brennan Armstrong to a season-low 17 points. And it did so without starting tackle Miles Fox and safety Nasir Greer, who were held out as a precaution because of minor injuries.

For the season, the Deacons rank third in the ACC in scoring defense at just 14.3 points allowed per game while ranking fourth nationally in forced turnovers with 11 takeaways, including seven interceptions.

“It’s great to have depth,” Clawson said after the win against the Cavaliers. “We can keep guys fresh. To me, that’s the key.

“It was a long game and we had guys cramping. How many safeties did we play, how many different corners? You saw the whole depth chart out there. That exact thing happened a year ago at North Carolina and we had nobody to put out there. Now we have other players who are capable.”

The same can be said of a veteran offensive unit that is also third in the ACC at 38.8 points per game and has caught the attention of Louisville coach Scott Satterfield.

“It’s a unique offense, the things that they do,” the former Appalachian State coach said. “If you get too aggressive and get out of a gap, that’s when they’re going to get you. You have to be fundamentally sound. You have to have an understanding of what they’re trying to do offensively because they do a lot of different things with the gaps game zone read. I think (quarterback) Sam Hartman’s got a really good understanding of their offense and he knows where to go with the football.”

Hartman has completed 66% of his passes for 961 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception, the duo of Christian Beal-Smith and Justice Ellison lead a ground attack averaging 188.3 yards per game, and kicker Nick Sciba — who has made 18 straight field goals — has the highest career percentage in NCAA history at 90.1%.

“It would be hard to find fault right now with how we’re executing on offense,” Clawson said. “We’ve just got to keep our edge. We’ve got a nice run-pass balance. We’re able to do what we need to do.”