Rice Shows Up Right on Time

Of all the characters I met over my four decades of writing sports, among the most colorful, and certainly one of the most profane, had to be the Frank Howard, the coach/philosopher who was Clemson football from the time he became head coach in 1940 until long after he retired in 1969.

He was still hanging around the program when I started making trips down I-85 in the early 70s, spinning stories that were at times nakedly racist, at times banal, and at times as dead-on insightful of the human condition as any words I’ve ever heard spoken.

Frank Howard was a man of his times, and as such, he could have never had lasted coaching more than a game or two in the 21st century. The reason he lasted back then was that the sportswriting community – of which I was, admittedly, a young convert – chose to scrub the N-bombs Howard dropped with such casual regularity from the transcripts of post-game and post-practice observations, as well as talks to civic groups so well-received throughout the upstate area of South Carolina.

Should I, as a 22-year-old neophyte in the business, have exposed Frank Howard for his racist language? Looking back, the answer is probably yes.

But that’s a rhetorical question I’ll leave for another post. On Saturday I was reminded of the words of wisdom Howard had for any fellow coach hoping to scratch out a living in the dog-eat-dog world of college football.

Find somebody you can beat, Howard would prescribe in his most red-dirt of all red-dirt Southern drawls, and play them every Saturday.

Wake found somebody it could beat Saturday. In Rice, the Deacons found a team pretty much any FBS college team could beat.

Anybody watching needed only a possession or two to see just how bad the Owls are. On Saturday, in front of a sparse gathering at BB&T Field, they were bad enough to be down 45 points by halftime to a team that had spent the previous two weeks getting knocked around its own home turf.

Dave Clawson is too smart a man to deny the obvious, and I was glad to see Conor O’Neill of my old shop the Winston-Salem Journal, lead with the caveat that provided all the context the reader might need.

Still, beating Rice 56-24 had to be fun for the Deacons and their fans, all of whom had been licking their wounds from the 41-34 cuffing by Boston College and the 56-27 drubbing by Notre Dame. But was the win just a sugar-high that will wear off long before Wake kicks off against No. 3 Clemson Saturday?

And just what did we learn from the fun and frivolity?

What I personally learned was that given enough time to stand in the pocket and survey the options available, freshman Sam Hartman certainly looks the part of an ACC quarterback. Trouble was, BC and Notre Dame didn’t give Hartman enough time and Hartman, consequently, looked like the raw freshman he is.

But given the luxury of time Saturday, Hartman shredded Rice for 15 completions on 17 attempts for 241 yards and four touchdowns, while playing turnover-free football. As Conor pointed out in Monday’s follow story, Hartman’s quarterback efficiency rating of 284.96 is the best ever at Wake for any quarterback with at least 11 completions.

How close can Hartman come to performing at that level under the duress he is sure to face against Clemson? I’m sure that’s a question Clawson, offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero and Hartman himself will be asking in the hours leading up to Saturday’s 3:30 kickoff at BB&T Field.

Saturday’s win also convinced me that Greg Dortch is far too great a weapon to allow to run free through the secondary. Notre Dame kept close tabs on Dortch, and held him to six catches for 56 yards and – most important – no touchdowns. Rice didn’t, and most likely couldn’t, and Dortch torched the Owls for 11 catches for 163 yards and – most important – four touchdowns.

Brent Venable is a good defensive coordinator, good enough in the eyes of Clemson to pay $11.6 million to lock him up for five years. He’s paid those big bucks to determine which opponents are most likely to make him and his defense look bad.

Greg Dortch will be a marked man again Saturday. I’m as curious as you to see how he and the Deacons will respond.

One question that was clearly not answered Saturday was what effect canning defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel four games into the season had on Wake’s performance. Clawson was not overjoyed to see Rice score three touchdowns in the second half, but he did express satisfaction with how the Deacons’ defense got lined up.

That may well not be enough against Clemson, but it will be a requisite for any semblance of success.

The Deacons emerged from September with a 3-2 record and a litany of questions remaining – most of which, I’m willing to predict, will be answered in October. Wake gets the second weekend off, and then will hit the road again for the first time since August to play at Florida State on Oct. 20 and at Louisville on Oct. 27.

Neither the Seminoles nor Cardinals appear to be the powerhouses they’ve been known to be, so maybe Wake can pick off one or the other and roll into November at 4-4 with Syracuse (home), N.C. State (away), Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play. That would leave the Deacons with at least a viable path to the six wins needed for a third-straight bowl.

But to beat Clemson, FSU or Louisville, Wake will have to play better football that it has played.

Dave Clawson, to his credit, knows this, as does anybody who has been paying attention this season.

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