Unexpected showdown: Wake, NC State meet in pivotal ACC matchup

The winner of Saturday’s game will be in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division

Running back Ricky Person Jr. and NC State will try and take advantage of a Wake Forest defense that has allowed an average of 38.4 points in its last five games when the two teams meet Saturday in Winston-Salem for the top spot in the ACC's Atlantic Division. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

NC State and Wake Forest first met on the football field 126 years ago and have played one another every year since 1910, making it the longest-running continuous rivalry in the ACC and the second oldest nationally.

It’s doubtful any of the previous 114 games between the Deacons and Wolfpack has been as meaningful as the one that will take place on Saturday at Truist Field.

Although the outcome won’t officially decide the ACC’s Atlantic Division title, the winner will have the inside track for a trip to Charlotte next month and the opportunity at playing for a conference championship.

“There’s a lot of people that feel a certain way about playing this game,” State coach Dave Doeren said on Monday. “So it’s great to be a part of it at this point in the season where both teams are relevant and are playing for a lot.”

Doeren’s 21st-ranked Wolfpack have never won an Atlantic title, the product of being in the same division as perennial national powers Clemson and Florida State, and haven’t won an outright ACC championship since 1979.

To put that into perspective, Doeren was 8 years old at the time.

Although a win Saturday would technically only tie State with Wake at the top of the division standings, the Wolfpack (7-2, 4-1) would be in the driver’s seat with two regular season games remaining because of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The 13th-ranked Deacons, meanwhile, would essentially have a two-game lead on the field if they were to win in pursuit of their third conference championship. The previous two came in 1970 and 2006, when they defeated Coastal winner Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

Saturday’s matchup lost most of its luster nationally because of Wake’s 58-55 loss to North Carolina, a  scheduled nonconference game that didn’t factor into the league standings. But it’s still every bit as meaningful to the teams involved

“We’re still 5-0 in the ACC, and in my mind, we have a championship game Saturday,” said Deacons coach Dave Clawson, whose team fell to 8-1 overall after the loss in Chapel Hill.

While Clawson said he won’t have to convince his players about the importance of the upcoming showdown, there are other issues he and his staff will have to address — especially after the way the UNC game played out.

Wake squandered an 18-point second-half lead by allowing the Tar Heels to score 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.

“Bouncing back from a loss and the adversity and not playing well on defense, those are the real problems we’ve got to fix,” he said, adding that his team must overcome a series of injuries that has left its secondary seriously depleted.

Despite the loss, Wake quarterback Sam Hartman said his team’s confidence is anything but shaken.

“We learn from it and move on,” Hartman said. “I think we’re a mature team, and that needs to be the mission and the idea. Because if not, it won’t help us at all. We’ve got bigger games to play now.”

Adding to the intrigue of the matchup is the contrast in the way each team has fashioned its success this season.

While a Deacons’ offense fueled by fourth-year sophomore Hartman and a receiving corps led by big-play threats Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry ranks second in the ACC with an average of 44.7 points per outing, the Wolfpack leads the league in scoring defense at just 16 points allowed per game.

State also has the capability of putting a big number on the scoreboard thanks to the passing of Devin Leary — who is quietly having a standout season with 25 touchdowns and only three interceptions — and the rushing duo of Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. that could be particularly effective against a Wake defense yielding an average of 216 yards on the ground.

The Deacons, however, have won eight of the last nine meetings in Winston-Salem.

All stats aside, Doeren said that the most important key to victory will be his team’s ability to stay focused on the task at hand rather than on the elusive goal that is now well within its reach.

“We need to focus on just getting better and staying in the moment as a team, and about not allowing what we want at the end of the season to happen get in the way of how we get to that place,” the State coach said. “That was a player-delivered message to me that I really loved. It’s been me and our staff holding them accountable to that goal that they set to stay in the moment and really be a 1-0 team each week. Stay there and not let people talk us out of it.

“I know everyone says the next game is the most important game and that’s true. But not everybody embraces that. I think this team has.”