Unbeaten Deacons take slights in stride

Wake Forest is off to another fast start, even if many aren’t yet taking notice

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman gets upended by Florida State defensive back Travis Jay while converting a two-point conversion in the third quarter of the Demon Deacons' 35-14 win Saturday at Truist Field in Winston-Salem. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM — The entire panel of analysts on ESPN’s College GameDay show picked Florida State to beat Wake Forest on Saturday.

One of them was so confident in the Seminoles’ chances, he tabbed them as his “Superdog” of the week.

It was the kind of slight that would typically become bulletin board material for a 4½-point favorite playing at home against a team coming off a loss to an FCS opponent.

But for the Deacons, it was business as usual.

They’re so used to being overlooked and underappreciated, especially when compared to brand name programs such as Florida State, that they barely even notice it anymore. Let alone take motivation from it.

“We’re not ‘Little Old Wake Forest’ anymore,” said redshirt senior defensive tackle Miles Fox after he and his teammates manhandled the Seminoles 35-14 at Truist Field. “We’re big boys. We’re one of the best teams in the ACC, and we want to go out there and prove everybody wrong. That’s all we can do.”

It’s doubtful Saturday’s outcome changed anybody’s perspective of coach Dave Clawson’s team. In fact, the prevailing postgame narrative was how far the winless Seminoles have fallen since their days as a perennial national championship contender rather than how well Wake played.

But as Fox stated, the Deacons don’t waste much time or energy worrying about such things.

Their only concerns are the things they can control. And they took care of business emphatically.

Facing its first real test after opening the new season with easy wins against Old Dominion — a team that opted out in 2020 — and FCS foe Norfolk State, Wake dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball on its way to improving to 3-0 for the fourth time in the past six seasons.

It rolled up a balanced 259 yards passing and 225 rushing on offense, holding onto the ball for 18 more minutes than its opponent, while forcing six turnovers and holding the Seminoles scoreless in the second half.

“We knew the level of competition was going to step up,” Clawson said. “The offense did a great job of controlling the clock. We controlled the line of scrimmage, we ran the ball really well. I thought (quarterback Sam Hartman) was really efficient again. Defensively, it was one of our best efforts. We’re going to need more of this as we move forward.”

Getting off to strong starts is nothing new for the Deacons. It’s finishing that has been the problem.

They are a combined 24-13 (.649 winning percentage) in September and October during their school-record run of five straight bowl seasons dating back to 2016, but only 9-14 (.391) in November and December.

Much of that dropoff can be traced to depth issues that come into play as injuries mount as the season progresses.

Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry reacts after a first down catch in second quarter of the Demon Deacons’ win over Florida State on Saturday. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The schedule has also traditionally gotten tougher, as is the case again this year with the final four games coming against North Carolina, NC State, six-time defending ACC champion Clemson and Boston College — with three of the four coming on the road.

They’ll get their first taste of life away from home and take another step up in competition when they travel to Virginia on Friday.

If there was ever a year in which Wake was equipped to run such a difficult gauntlet, it’s this one thanks to the return of nine “super seniors” who chose to use the extra year of eligibility given to them by the NCAA.

“We’re coming,” said sophomore wide receiver A.T. Perry, who had a career day against Florida State with seven catches for 155 yards and a touchdown. “Just one game at a time, one practice at a time, making sure we get the right things down.”

Perry was one of four Deacons to get into the end zone against Florida State on Saturday. Donald Stewart was also on the receiving end of a Hartman touchdown pass while Christian Beal-Smith and Justice Ellison each ran for a score.

Wake is averaging 39.3 points in its first three games.

Scoring points in bunches is nothing new, however. The Deacons have broken or tied more than 300 records under Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero, and their past three full seasons — they only played nine games during the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign — were the three highest-scoring in school history.

What sets this year’s team apart is the way it has defended. After finishing 12th in the ACC at 32.8 points per game allowed last season, Wake has given up an average of just 13.3 points to its first three opponents. It also leads the league with six interceptions, with Caelen Carson, Nasir Greer and Traveon Redd getting one each against Florida State.

It’s a difference that’s been especially noticeable to Hartman.

“In camp there was some animosity (between the offense and defense) in a great way, going back and forth and competing with each other,” the veteran quarterback said. “When you see those guys succeed against someone that’s not you, it’s awesome. All across the board, it’s great to see.”