Wake Breaks Through

Progress, as Wake Forest confirmed with Sunday’s mind-blowing 64-43 victory over Syracuse, is rarely if ever linear.

We humans don’t generally go from awful to awesome slow and steady, step-by-step.

Instead we push against the impenetrable (or so it seems) barrier with all our might until we start to despair, until we start to feel like the mythological Sisyphus trying, always in vain, to shoulder his boulder up and over the hill.

And what happens is that, if we push hard enough, with enough sustained energy and ingenuity with our mouth held just right, all of a sudden the barrier shatters. All of a sudden we, in the words of Jim Morrison of the Doors, break on through to the other side.

Break on through, I say again, to the other side.

For my last three seasons as an everyday working sportswriter (again, a contradiction of terms) I watched Dave Clawson endeavor ever so mightily to build an offense at Wake Forest from scratch. Jim Grobe, the best coach I never covered at Wake, left Dave a solid, mid-level ACC defense but the offensive cupboard was as bare as bare could be.

Practice after practice, game after game, month after month, season after season I watched Dave assemble the parts and put them through their paces, with barely noticeable results.

First he had to build the offensive line. Then he had to find and coach up the skill athletes able to deliver the goods. But for all his efforts — and as I will attest, they were considerable – a microscope was required to see any sign of progress.

His first team scored 14.8 points a game, fewer than any major-college team other than SMU. His second team averaged 17.4 points a game, which, though better, was still worse than every ACC team other than anemic Boston College.

So it took Clawson three seasons for his offense to score 20.4 points a game, which still tied the Eagles for worst in the league. But after averaging only 13 points over the final three games, the Deacons at least threw scraps of hope to the hungry by torching ranked Temple for 34 in a resounding Military Bowl victory.

Anyone expecting the 2017 team to be an offensive juggernaut had to be disappointed by the 20 points at Appalachian State, the 19 at home against FSU and the 14 at Clemson.

But somewhere along the way – maybe it was during the 43-32 victory over Louisville, or perhaps even the 48-37 loss at Notre Dame – Clawson and his Deacons got up enough momentum to finally, at long last, push their Sisyphean boulder over the crest of the hill.

And once that boulder started rolling down the other side –

– My man, John Wolford, ravages the Orange defense for 499 yards and six touchdowns.

– Matt Colburn, the last running back standing, rumbles for 237 yards and two touchdowns.

– Three receivers, Tabari Hines, Cam Serigne and Scotty Washington, catch at least seven passes for at least 100 yards.

– The Deacons, as a team, score their most points since 66-21 drubbing of Virginia in 1975 and amass a total of 734 yards, shattering the school record to little tiny bits. The previous record was the 632 yards gained against North Carolina in a 48-31 home victory way back in 1968, the season Groves Stadium (now known as BB&T Field) opened.

And Wake accomplished all this without Cade Carney, the running back who started the season, Greg Dortch, the redshirt freshman who zipped and zapped his way to 53 receptions and 722 yards in is first eight college games, and Arkeem Byrd, another redshirt freshman who scared the dickens out of every defensive coordinator who turned on Wake’s tapes.

But what the Deacons had, by Saturday, was a tough, grizzled offensive line, a talented quarterback who had started 42 games, and a team-full of players who bought into Clawson’s mantra that the process had to be trusted

So Wake, at 6-4, is now bowl eligible with home games against N.C. State and Duke remaining. There were erroneous reports from multiple quarters that Saturday’s victory secured a bowl bid. That’s what I heard on the telecast, and even Clawson, in his post-game IMG Sports interview with Stan Cotten, said his team is now guaranteed at least three more games.

Not so.

As probable as a bowl bid for Wake is – and I, like most everybody reading this, have a hard time imagining the Deacons will be sitting home come bowl season – the fact remains that every team in the ACC other than North Carolina still has a shot at one of the nine bowl tie-ins the conference has arranged.

Of course, the Deacons could end up in a bowl with no current affiliation with the conference. And of course they are, suddenly, a most attractive team capable of putting up pinball-like numbers at the drop of a shiny gold helmet.

And for that I’m happy for Wolford and Serigne and all the seniors who had to trust the process as Clawson built the offense part by part. I’m happy for Justin Herron, Phil Haynes, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Osterhage, Jake Benzinger and Nathan Gilliam, all of whom were showered with so much abuse (much of it, I must admit, coming from yours truly) while they galvanized into the best offensive line I’ve seen play at Wake since, at least, Grobe’s first few seasons.

Most of all I’m happy for Dave Clawson, because I know how hard he had to work to get the program where it is today.

Work obviously remains. The defense is a concern, even after giving up only three points in the second half at Syracuse. If stars Jessie Bates and Duke Ejiofor are unable to answer the bell next week, the proceedings against N.C. State could get ugly.

But the Deacons are again, a really fun team to watch. That’s what Clawson promised when he arrived, and that’s what he has delivered.

The boulder has crested the hill. Look out below.


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