Wake OL Play a Sight for Sore Eyes

To me, the most impressive drive of Wake Forest’s breakthrough 42-32 victory over Louisville last Saturday didn’t produce even a field goal, much less a touchdown.

But it did show more people than me something we have all been waiting years and years to see.

The Deacons were leading 35-17 when they regained possession at their own 6-yard line with 9:14 showing on the clock. They embarked then and there on a 10-play drive – with all the plays being handoffs or pitches to running back Matt Colburn — that consumed seven minutes and 15 seconds, leaving the Cardinals with only 1:59 remaining to stage a miracle comeback.

They seriously tried, scoring two touchdowns on blitzkrieg drives of five and four plays, but the comeback was dented by John Wolford’s 44-yard touchdown pass to high-school teammate Chucky Wade. Thus, only 14 seconds were showing when Louisville scored its last points – not enough time even for someone as dangerous with the football in his hands as quarterback Lamar Jackson.

So looking back, it was easy conclude that it was allowing the Deacons to chew up seven precious minutes that ultimately did Louisville in. And for those seven minutes, the Cardinals had to know what Wake Forest intended to do, and yet the Deacons kept rolling down the field with Colburn picking up seven yards on this play, 18 on that, 10 on the next.

Colburn carried all 10 plays, gaining 56 yards and picking up three first downs before being stacked for no gain on a fourth-and-one at the Louisville 38. The moment had to be seriously satisfying to Colburn, who originally committed to Cardinals’ coach Bobby Petrino before being told, in effect, that his scholarship could be better used elsewhere.

So Colburn, by finishing with a career-high 134 yards on 24 carries was one of the big stories of the game, as were redshirt freshman Greg Dortch (10 catches for 167 yards and a school-record four touchdowns), redshirt sophomore Scotty Washington (six catches for 133 yards) and of course senior quarterback John Wolford (28 completions on 34 passes for 461 yards and five touchdowns).

But those who live and die with Wake football through the years could be forgiven for thinking that the most satisfying storyline of the day was the way the Deacons, with the game still on the line, knocked holes in Louisville’s defense and ran through them.

Those who followed my coverage of Wake Forest football for the Winston-Salem Journal might have noticed that I began ever preseason camp by asking one question: Is this the year the Deacons’ offensive line finally starts blocking somebody?

And they also might remember that I concluded every season with the answer. And we all know what that answer was.

Season after season, Wake Forest was saddled with one of the weakest offensive lines in at least Power Five football, if not the entire college game. Dave Clawson was well aware of the deficiency when he accepted the position of head coach before the 2014 season, but he also recognized that no unit on the team takes as much time to build, and build right, as the offensive line.

It’s a long, arduous process that requires identifying the right players in recruiting, getting them in the weight room and building their bodies to where they can do what needs to be done, and then, and only then, molding them into a well-drilled machine with five players working as one.

Time and again, Clawson explained how there were no quick fixes in the offensive line, and time after time, I nodded my head in total agreement. I understood completely what he was doing when he bit the proverbial bullet by inserting Justin Herron and Phil Haynes in the lineup as redshirt freshmen. I even wrote a story about it, with the headline being “Twin Pillars.’’

There were baby steps along the way. Season by season, the Deacons gained more yards rushing while giving up fewer sacks.

But it wasn’t until this past Saturday that I saw Wake block an elite college team the way the Deacons blocked Louisville.

Kudos to Herron and Haynes, redshirt juniors who have started 61 games between them.

Kudos to redshirt junior center Ryan Anderson, who has started 25 even after being suspended the first five games of his redshirt freshmen season.

Kudos to redshirt junior Patrick Osterhage and redshirt sophomore Jake Benzinger for holding their own on the right side of the line.

Kudos to Nick Tabacca, the offensive line coach who assembled the parts and got them all working together.

Kudos most of all to Clawson, who saw what had to be done for the Deacons to ever be competitive in the ACC again, and set about doing it.

Wake is currently in South Bend for tomorrow’s game against fifth-ranked Notre Dame. It would be a tough assignment in the best of circumstances, but these are hardly the best of circumstances for the Deacons.

Dortch, the redshirt freshman revelation, is out for the season with an injury. Jessie Bates, an all-ACC candidate at safety, is out for the game, as is sophomore running back Cade Carney

Clawson this week wasn’t even sure if explosive running back Arkeem Byrd will be able to answer the bell. If he’s not, Clawson has two choices. He can either go with Colburn and Isaiah Robinson, a redshirt junior who has played in just two games this season, carrying 19 times for 61 yards. Or he could burn the redshirt of freshman Christian Beal, a move no coach wants to make in the ninth week of the season.

It’s hard to see the Deacons, on the road, beating a Notre Dame team playing for a spot in the college football playoffs. So I don’t expect it.

But any team with an efficient offensive line has a chance. And with last week’s game on the line, the offensive line was as efficient as any I’ve seen play for Dave Clawson.

Talk about a sight for sore eyes.

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