Wake Forest, Duke continue heading in opposite directions

The Deacons' 45-7 rout was their school-record eighth straight win and added to the woes of the struggling Blue Devils

Wake Forest's Donald Stewart catches a 33-yard pass from quarterback Sam Hartman as Duke's Josh Blackwell tries to defend. (P.J. Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM — The football programs at Wake Forest and Duke are similar in many ways because of the size of their schools, their stringent academic requirements and numerous other challenges to competing with their larger ACC rivals.

Their current differences, however, have never been as great.

The disparity was on full display at Truist Field on Saturday as the 13th-ranked Deacons routed the reeling Blue Devils 45-7.

Sam Hartman threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more, and a defense that got torched for 56 points at Army last week bounced back with a strong performance as Wake extended its winning streak to a school-record eight straight.

Duke, meanwhile, lost its fourth in a row while extending a streak that saw its last three opponents score 100 unanswered points before finally getting onto the scoreboard long after the issue was decided.

The victory keeps the Deacons (8-0, 5-0 ACC) atop the Atlantic Division standings heading into a difficult finishing stretch that will see them play three of their final four regular season games on the road. As for the Blue Devils, the loss only adds to the uncertainty surrounding the future of coach David Cutcliffe.

“I think we’re a good football team,” said Wake coach Dave Clawson, whose Deacons now face a gauntlet of North Carolina, NC State, Clemson and Boston College over the final four weeks of the regular season, with three of those games on the road.

“I think we can still play better and that’s what makes it so exciting. We’ve got some really good football ahead of us, at the same time realizing we’ve got some really tough teams on the schedule.”

Still riding the momentum from its 70 points-in-17 minutes explosion in last week’s win at West Point, Wake’s offense came out flying again against a Duke defense that came into the game ranked last in the ACC.

It took just 91 seconds for Hartman to hit a wide-open Jaquarii Roberson with a 38-yard touchdown pass to get the Deacons off and rolling.

And they never looked back.

After a rare three-and-out on their second possession, they got back into the end zone the next three times they touched the ball, with Hartman showing off his vast array of talents on each drive.

The fourth-year sophomore scrambled 26 yards for his first rushing touchdown and scored from four yards out for another score before hitting Ke’Shawn Williams with a four-yard pass to stake his team to a 28-0 halftime lead.

Hartman completed 24 of 37 passes for 402 yards to eight different receivers before being relieved early in the fourth quarter. He also picked up 61 rushing yards on just six carries. 

Christian Beal-Smith added a rushing touchdown, Tyler Morin also scored on a pass from Hartman while A.T. Perry had seven catches for 116 yards to spearhead a Deacons offense that rolled up 677 total yards (411 through the air, 266 on the ground).  

Combined with the 638 yards it gained last week against Army, Wake has put together back-to-back 600-plus yard efforts for the first time in school history.

About the only downside of Saturday’s performance was a missed 26-yard field goal by Nick Sciba, who had his streak of consecutive makes snapped at 24. He did, however, start a new streak later in the game.

“Our offense is on a different level right now,” Roberson said. “Every time we touch the ball, pretty much, we’ve got an opportunity to score. But getting up early against Duke was big for us. That was our plan going into the game.”

The defense’s plan, on the other hand, was doing a better job against the run after getting torched for 350 or more yards on the ground in each of the past two games.

Despite a 103-yard effort by Duke’s Mataeo Durant, the ACC’s second-leading rusher, the Deacons allowed only 315 total yards, 160 of which were on the ground. And 35 of those yards came on a run that would have been called back because of holding had Durant not fumbled the ball away.

The difference in the results, according to defensive end Rondell Bothroyd, was “the chip on our shoulder from last week and just knowing we can be one of the best defenses in the ACC. We just have to get back to playing that way and I think we did somewhat today.”

Despite the ugly finish, Duke (3-5, 0-4) actually got off to a promising start in the game.

With Durant doing most of the work, the Blue Devils drove from their own 25 to the Wake 36 on their opening possession. But the drive stalled when quarterback Gunnar Holmberg overthrew Jalon Calhoun on a fourth-and-2 play.

On the next series, a hand injury that forced Holmberg temporarily to the sideline helped derail another effective possession.

After another failed fourth-down conversion, this one at the Wake 13 with the score still only 14-0, things went downhill quickly for the Blue Devils. They didn’t get close to the end zone again until backup quarterback Riley Leonard’s 2-yard run with 7:17 remaining to break a scoreless streak of nearly eight quarters.

“We could pick a million things,” Cutcliffe said of his team’s continuing woes. “It’s pretty obviously over and over and over where there are a lot of struggles. But the answers all lie within us and we’ve got to find those answers.”