Duke, Wake Forest close out regular season with rare high stakes

For first time, the Deacons and Blue Devils are both bowl-bound as they meet

Quarterback Riley Leonard and Duke will try and establish themselves as one of the top bowl-eligible teams in the ACC when they host Wake Forest on Saturday. (Matt Kelley / AP Photo/)

History will be made at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday when Wake Forest and Duke conclude their regular seasons against each other. Both teams enter with identical 7-4 records and are each headed to a bowl game.

This is the first time Duke and Wake have played when both teams are bowl eligible. It’s also the first time each team has at least six wins — let alone seven — when they take the field to face off. The closest they’ve come in series history was 2018, when Wake beat 7-4 Duke, 59-7 in Durham, to get its sixth win and become bowl eligible.

The previous year, 2017, Duke pulled the same trick in Winston-Salem, beating the 7-4 Demon Deacons to get their ticket to a bowl with a sixth win.

Both teams have the same record, but Duke and Wake likely don’t feel the same way about their 7-4 marks. The Blue Devils have already recorded their most wins in a season since 2018, emerging as one of the ACC’s surprise teams in head coach Mike Elko’s first season.

The Blue Devils are led by dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard and a much-improved defense. Duke had a three-game winning streak snapped when a fourth quarter comeback fell just short in a 28-26 loss at Pitt.

The offense, which has topped 30 points seven times in 11 games, had a rare off night in Pittsburgh.

“Obviously, very disappointed with how we played offensively through three quarters,” Elko said. “We really struggled to establish the line of scrimmage and we couldn’t get the run game going. We were very inconsistent in the throw game. We turned the football over and special teams-wise we had some critical mistakes in the return game that really hurt us.”

Duke took solace in the team’s comeback from down 14 in the fourth quarter, however.

“Credit to our kids because they don’t quit and they don’t stop,” Elko said. “They are resilient as heck.”

“It is kind of like our attitude,” defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “Like we have shown all year, we are never out of the fight 100 percent. No matter what time was left in the game, no matter what the circumstances are, you are never out of the fight. I think that we showed a lot of resiliency and continued to show who we have been all year.”

Wake Forest, meanwhile, entered the season as the defending ACC Atlantic Division champion and, as recently as Halloween weekend, the Deacs were in the top 10 of the AP poll. The team then hit a wall, losing three straight as Dave Clawson’s record-breaking offense suddenly became a turnover machine. Wake recovered with a 45-35 home win over Syracuse last weekend. After the Deacs scored 40 or more points five times in their first seven games, this was the first 40-point outing in their last four.

“The last couple of weeks have been tough,” Clawson said, “but we kept working, kept preparing. … We made more plays than them and the offense really got humming. In the second and third quarter there, to me, that was the offense that I kind of expected to see all year, and it was exciting to see us humming along like that.”

Was it a get-well game for quarterback Sam Hartman and the offense? He threw for 331 yards, his seventh game of 300-plus this season, and passed for four touchdowns, his fifth game with as many. Most importantly, however, was the zero in the interceptions column, his first since Oct. 8.

“Sam has been so good and so steady, especially the last two years, you kind of get spoiled and kind of expect it,” Clawson said.

Wake’s offensive rebirth may be slowed by injuries to a pair of receivers — Donavon Greene and Jahmal Banks both went down in the Syracuse game, and Clawson didn’t have an update after the game.

As big a concern may be the status of Wake’s secondary, which will have to defend Leonard and the Duke passing game.

“We don’t defend the ball in the air very well and we don’t defend deep balls well,” Clawson said. “We’re shorthanded in the secondary. We’ve been down Caelen Carson, who we felt going into the year was our best corner, Malik Mustapha, who is probably our best safety, and Coby Davis, who was our best nickel. That was a position that wasn’t a strength for us going into it. So that’s been one of our challenges all year. At that position you have to be able to cover people and make plays on the ball. We haven’t been able to do that all year.”

Both teams have plenty at stake on Saturday as each looks to close out their regular season with an eighth win to head into their bowl game with some momentum. And that’s something that’s never been said about this game before.