Wake brings nation’s best pass rush duo to Death Valley

Jasheen Davis and Jacob Roberts lead the country in sacks

Elon quarterback Matthew Downing, bottom, is sacked by Wake Forest linebacker Jacob Roberts during their game Aug. 31 in Winton-Salem. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

Wake Forest travels to Death Valley this Saturday looking to end a string of futility against Clemson that has lasted 14 years. The last time the Deacs beat Clemson was 2008. The last time Wake beat the Tigers in the shadow of Howard’s Rock? That goes all the way back to 1998.

Of course, if anyone can put an end to recent history, it’s this year’s Demon Deacons squad.

For years under coach Dave Clawson, Wake has been known for its explosive offenses. With Sam Hartman throwing passes before he headed off to Notre Dame, the Deacs offense rewrote the school record book in a big way, demolishing old records for scoring, passing and overall offensive production.

This year, however, when looking at the NCAA leaders on offense, an observer needs to locate the scroll button on their computer. Wake is all the way down at No. 48 on total offense. The Deacs are No. 53 in passing. In the scoring rankings, someone would need to find the “next page” arrow — Wake comes in at No. 68.

For the first time since 2016, when current Duke coach and national coach of the year candidate Mike Elko was running the Deacs’ defense, Wake could end up ranked higher in total defense than total offense. Wake is on its third defensive coordinator since Elko departed — Brad Lambert, the former Charlotte head coach who took over a notoriously porous Wake defense prior to last season.

“We’re in year two with Brad,” Clawson said. “Our players now know the defense. Across the board, we’re playing faster. It allows us to make adjustments. In year one, players are just trying to learn it. At halftime, if you want to pull out this thing we ran two weeks ago in the third quarter, the first year, you’re not able to do that. You don’t have the accumulated reps and history. We’re now able to do more. We’ve been able to do more multiple upfront and create better matchups for our guys up front.”

That’s putting it mildly. Wake has been a wrecking machine up front. Through four games, the Deacs already have 16 sacks. Only the bye week last Saturday kept Wake off the opposing quarterback, and it also knocked them from the top spot nationally when it comes to pass rushing. Wake is currently tied for third in the country in sacks with Tennessee, TCU and USC. After three games, the Deacs had a six-sack lead on the rest of the ACC and had already gotten halfway to last season’s full-year sack total.

Wake was the first team in the country to record 10 sacks in a game, which they did in Week 3 against Old Dominion.

“You can tell guys are more comfortable,” Clawson said. “They’re playing faster thinking less and reacting more.”

Leading the way for the Deacs are linebacker Jacob Roberts and defensive end Jasheen Davis, who ranked one-two in the country in sacks after the ODU game, when they each brought down the quarterback three times, tying each other for the second-best sack game in school history.

The effort earned both players ACC Player of the Week honors at their respective positions. Roberts was also named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.

“I’m just playing football,” Roberts said of his success. “Sometimes the ball can fall in your hands.”

Roberts has five sacks on the season, which puts him at No. 4 nationally. Davis has three solo sacks and has assisted on three others for 4.5 sacks, which ties him for fifth in the nation.

The pair are far and away the best pass-rushing tandem of the early season. They’ve combined for 9.5 sacks, which is a sack and a half better than the next-best duo (Alabama’s Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner, as well as Toledo’s Jeremiah Peters and Judge Culpepper).

While Clawson credits the team’s experience in Lambert’s defensive system, it’s all new for Roberts, who arrived as a transfer after graduating from NC A&T. As a sophomore, he was named MVP of the Celebration Bowl that earned the team a claim to the HBCU national title, but he always had his eyes to the west.

“It’s special for me,” he said in an appearance on the ACC Network. “To finish at my dream school. It’s a dream come true for me to play for the team I always wanted to play for.”

Davis, meanwhile, is in his fourth season as a Deac, although he only played sparingly in his redshirt year of 2020. He entered the year No. 11 on the school’s career sacks list and has already jumped to No. 7.

The duo will be tasked with chasing down Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik this week. The Tigers have only allowed nine sacks on the season, which is a good week for Davis, Roberts and company.

“I’m just making plays,” Roberts said. “Coach gave me the opportunity to go out there and do my thing.”

It’s enough to make people forget that Wake is an offense-first team.