Pitt Showed How It’s Done

The Wake faithful who showed up at BB&T Field today saw a team they came into the season hoping to see.

They saw a team with an imposing offensive line brawny and cohesive enough to impose its will on the opponent, especially as the game wore on and the defense wore down.

They saw a team with a resourceful defense that made the stops that had to be made.

They saw a team that bounced back from early-season stumbles to get better and better week by week.

They saw a team that stunned all the experts by marching inexorably to a division title and a berth in the ACC championship.

And they filed out of BB&T Field wishing if only it had been their team who showed all that and not the visiting Pitt Panthers.

The 34-13 setback to Pitt was all but in the cards going into this one. The Panthers were on a big-time roll and besides that, they’ve proven over the back half of the season to be pretty damn good. And Wake, for all the pluck it showed in the first half, appeared spent, done, kaput as the clock and Pitt rolled own.

If nothing else, what we saw today made last week’s upset of N.C. State appear all the more remarkable. But Pitt did what the Wolfpack was unable to do, which was wear the thread-bare Deacons’ defense to the nub by the midway point of the fourth quarter. And quarterback Jamie Newman was unable to do what he did a week ago, which was to stand in the pocket and make the throws that have to be made to pull off the kind of stunner Wake pulled last week.

The fans were undoubtedly grumbling when Dave Clawson chose to kick the field goal trailing 20-10 with 12 ½ minutes to go. But what I felt at the time proved to be the case.

It really didn’t matter. Nothing less than a Panther turnover was going to give Wake any chance whatsoever to be in the game at the end.

There’s no statistic in football – and may not be in all of sports – bigger than the turnover. A team can drive the ball 98 yards and fumble on the one, and have nothing other than field position to show for all those runs and passes and first downs.

If the Deacons were going to do anything really special this season they were going to have to win the turnover-margin, and perhaps even handily. I was happy to see that my guy Evan Lepler had the opportunity to stay at home and handle the play-by-play duties for the Fox Sports South telecast, and as he pointed out so astutely, a Wake team has never lost the turnover margin and made a bowl.

With the two interceptions Newman threw today, the Deacons are minus-9 on turnovers for the season. What really jumps out, though, is that Wake has now played 11 games while intercepting only four passes.

The secondary was a big-time question mark going into the season, and unfortunately for Clawson and his staff, that question has been answered.

So the Deacons have one more chance – next week at Duke – to win a sixth game and make a bowl for a third-straight season. All the countless hours they have put in since the end of last season – all the windsprints, all the off-season workouts, all the blood, sweat and tears left on the field – will come down to 60 minutes at Wallace Wade Stadium.

For Wake to even still have a chance at a bowl at this late stage is, to me, impressive. But to the Black and Gold faithful who made the final game at BB&T Field, that’s not anywhere near as impressive as that team from Pittsburgh that rolled to a Coastal Division title.

Congrats to Pat Narduzzi and his Panthers for a job well-done.

Black and Gold Path of Least Resistance

For all the comings and goings during Danny Manning’s four-plus seasons at Wake – and lately those going have been doing so at an alarming rate – one constant remains.

The Deacons can’t defend, or at least they can’t do so well enough collectively to be more than fodder to those good teams lucky enough to play them. Such was the case in Year One of Manning’s run at Wake, and such is the case at the start of Year Five.

Manning’s counterpart, Phil Martelli of St. Joe’s, had plenty of reason to feel good going into the Myrtle Beach Invitational. His daughter gave birth to Martelli’s grandson and his Hawks were afforded the Path of Least Resistance into the semifinals of the tournament.

A Path of Least Resistance is what Wake has been since the day Manning arrived, and that’s what the Deacons were again today in a demoralizing 89-69 thumping. Whether it’s advancing in a tournament or climbing one more step toward the top of the ACC standings, few teams provide less resistance than a Wake team coached by Danny Manning.

This one was more demoralizing than so many that came before because of all the optimism around the program going into the season.

You know #newbeginnings, and all that.

The Deacons did, after all, add highly-regarded freshmen Jaylen Hoard, Isaiah Mucius and Sharone Wright, Jr., and Manning and his staff were coming off a full season of coaching up promising sophomores Chaundee Brown and Olivier Sarr.

Yet over the first 10 minutes of the second half – while the Hawks were scoring on 14 of 20 possessions to blow a tie game wide open – the brand of basketball being played by the Deacons looked for all the world like the same old same old we’ve all been watching for the past four years.

We saw it all once again, hot shooters shooting wide-open shots, drivers driving straight-line to the basket for layups, cutters cutting off ball screens to find nobody between them and the basket.

Over my seasons since retirement, I watch Wake basketball with a pad in my hand, and tally how many possessions opponents get and how many times the Deacons stop them from scoring. Even with counting the three St. Joe’s possessions after both coaches emptied their bench – the Hawks scored on 38 of their 68 possessions.

They scored on 19 of 35 in the first half, and 19 of 33 in the second. But they made their greatest hay midway through the second half by scoring on seven straight possessions.

Not until the damage had already been done, and St. Joe’s was looking forward to its next game in the tournament, did Wake stop the Hawks twice in a row in the second half. And not until the coaches emptied the bench did the Deacons stop St. Joe’s more than twice in a row.

The season-opening 90-78 victory over North Carolina A&T was fun, in that we got to see Hoard and Mucius finally put their considerable athletic talents on display in a college setting, and had reason to wonder just how good Wright, Brown and Sarr might be. But alarm bells had to go off when the Aggies shot 46 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3-point range, while being forced into just eight turnovers.

Then comes today, when the Hawks shoot 52 percent from the floor and 53 percent from beyond the arc and score 89 points while committing just eight turnovers.

Hoard and Mucius are good offensive players, and they’re going to fill a high-light reel for the season. Brown looked good in the first half, before pulling his all-to-familiar disappearing act in the second.

But can the Deacons beat anybody good when their starting center, Sarr, plays 22 minutes and gets only one shot – a 3-pointer he drilled from the top of the key?

Throughout my career, I resisted making snap judgments, and I continue to do so today. It’s a long season, and all that. Nothing is static in life. Everything is dynamic, in a state of flux.

Maybe today was a case of early-season jitters, and maybe the Deacons will come out and romp through the next two games of the tournament. I’d like to think that’s the case, and might even succeed if what we saw today didn’t look so much like what we’ve all seen so many times before.

Commission the Statue

We had us another hot time in the old town of Bethania last night at our Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe.

As always, it was all kinds of people playing all kinds of music all kinds of ways having all kinds of fun doing so.

But as good a night as I had, I know one guy who had a better night. A much better night.

In fact it’s hard for me to remember a Wake football coach having a better night – at least not in the regular season — than Dave Clawson enjoyed last night about 100 miles east of Bethania at N.C. State.

Everybody knew going in that Wake never wins at N.C. State. Everybody knew Wake was too depleted on defense to hold the 14th-ranked Wolfpack to fewer than 50 points. Everybody knew there was no way Wake was going to walk into Carter-Finley Stadium with a quarterback who had never started a game and get out with anything less than a old-fashion tail-whipping.

Betting was never my thing during my years as a sportswriter, partly because I’m too tight to part with my money but mostly because I didn’t think that professionally it would be a good idea.

But if I had bet on last night’s game I would have lost bigly. I mean really hugely. Because, like pretty much everybody who wasn’t on the team bus from Winston-Salem to Raleigh, I thought there was no way Wake would win.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong. Dave Clawson proved everybody wrong, and as a result the Deacons got back on that team bus and celebrated their most improbable 27-23 victory all the way back down I-40 to campus.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong in more ways than one. I thought it was wrong to fire Jay Sawvel, the defensive coordinator, three games into the season. My position, I thought, was confirmed when the Deacons continued to get shredded long after Sawvel was gone.

But to take a defense that had given up 177 points in its previous four games and coach it up to the point it could hold N.C. State to two touchdowns and three field goals was one of the inspired coaching performances I can remember. Making it all the more astounding was the fact Clawson had only five days to do it.

(And by the way, who was it that broke up Ryan Finley’s fourth-down pass late, a play that gave the Deacons a chance to win? It was none other than the much-maligned – by me and pretty much everybody – Ja’Sir Taylor. What a night.)

Dave Clawson proved me wrong for positing that he and his staff had squandered the four years that John Wolford started at quarterback without recruiting a quarterback good enough to either beat out or back up freshman Sam Hartman. I’ve said before that Jamie Newman, at 6-4, 230, certainly looks the part of an ACC quarterback, but last night he also played like one when it mattered most, directing the two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that pulled out the victory.

Now I could grumble about how seldom any of us are told about the injuries on the Wake team, and how none of us knew the litany of injuries that had kept Jamie Newman sidelined. I could even suggest – admittedly without a shred of evidence to back it up – that maybe Clawson was starting the wrong guy all along, or, short of that, too slow to insert Newman for Hartman when the going got rough.

I could also point out that Clawson came around to the realization that I, like many others, had arrived at weeks earlier – that to protect his worn and tattered defense he needed to run fewer plays on offense. He freely acknowledged that the strategy last night was to downshift on offense.

But to cast any aspersions on the kind of victory Wake enjoyed last night at N.C. State would be small of me, and I don’t want to be like that. Dave Clawson pulled off one of the most amazing victories in the history of Wake football, and he deserves every bit of credit we can shower him with.

I admittedly get a big kick out of reading message-board chatter both for smiles and to gauge the mood and shifts of a fan base. As one would certainly expect, the Wolfpack fans howling on PackPride.com late into the night were all about firing everybody from Dave Doeren right down the ball boys.

But even when Wake was losing to BC, Florida State and Syracuse and giving up 63 points to Clemson, I was writing that Dave Clawson is a good football coach, and that Wake was lucky to have him. I was writing that he was a good football coach having a bad season.

Well Dave Clawson’s season got a whole lot better last night in Raleigh. The Deacons found another option at quarterback, beat a heated rival at a place where Wake never wins, all the while improving to 5-5 with games against Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play.

A couple of weeks ago, after the victory over Louisville, I wrote that if Dave Clawson can get a team to a bowl in this, of all, seasons, Wake should erect a statue to him and that he would be worth more to the school than said school could ever hope to pay him.

I knew all along he was a good football coach. But I never thought he was as good as what we saw last night.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong. And it didn’t hurt my feelings one bit.

Rookie Quarterback Blues, Verse Deux

(Editors note: No sooner had I posted this blog than I caught Les Johns’ scoop in Demon Deacon Digest that freshman quarterback Sam Hartman has been lost for the rest of the season because of injury. Off to play music today. Will address development in days to come).

Much was made in yesterday’s telecast of Syracuse’s 41-24 victory over the Deacons concerning the similarities between the quarterback who just graduated out of the Wake program and the one who just arrived.

Sideline reporter Rebecca Kaple reported that Coach Dino Babers of the Orange saw them as basically the same guy. The quote was something to the effect of “they took the quarterback they had last season as a senior and started him over as a freshman.’’

The comparisons between John Wolford and Sam Hartman are inescapable. Both are relatively short white quarterbacks dangerous either running or throwing the football. And both are sharp enough to absorb an offense early and well enough to begin their careers on the field.

Neither was a highly-coveted blue chip recruit and yet both possess the kind of gravitas it takes to command the respect of older, more grizzled teammates.

Yet as the game unfolded, what became clearer and clearer to these old rheumy eyes was the difference between the two.

Physically, they’re different. Hartman seems a tad taller and is definitely more rangy. Wolford looked stocky to me when he arrived, even before he spent the next four years in the weight room adding muscle.

If pressed as to which is the most physically talented, I’d probably say Hartman. He appears to have more arm strength, perhaps a few more miles-per-hour on his passes, if nothing else.

But to even be compared to John Wolford, a quarterback would have to be one of the toughest hombres to ever suit up for Wake football. Wolford absorbed an unholy pounding over the first half of his career, and not only survived, but thrived well enough to lead the Deacons to back-to-back winning seasons capped by bowl victories over Temple and Texas A&M and leave Wake ranked third in all-time passing yards, second in touchdown passes and second to only the legendary Riley Skinner for total yards.

None of this is to say that Hartman is soft. He would have to have the requisite sand to even take a snap from center in his first season, much less get up from all the times he has been slammed unceremoniously to the turf.

As someone who couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be pancaked by a bull-rushing 300-pound defensive tackle, I’m not about to call anybody who has lived to tell about it yellow. Nobody who suits up for college football is yellow, for the weak and timid have been long beforehand culled from the sport.

But it’s what I’ve seen from Hartman in his first nine games that separates him most from the man he succeeded. I’ve seen him flinch.

I’ve seen him come out strong, only to get rattled and a bit gunshy once he’s been hit a time or two. I saw it yesterday when he overthrew a wide open Matt Colburn down the right sidelines, and a play or two later overthrew a wide open Scotty Washington down the left sideline.

I saw it when he dropped back and whiffed his pass for a fumble that Syracuse converted into a game-changing touchdown.

Maybe, thinking back to 2014, John Wolford flinched a time or two as a freshman quarterback breaking into the ACC. Maybe my memory is colored rose by by immense respect for John Wolford and all he became as a junior and senior.

But that said, I can’t for the life of me remember John Wolford flinching. I do remember him getting sacked something like 48 times as a freshman and around 40 as a sophomore. I would prefer to be a bit more specific, but the only sack stats I could find from past seasons were team stats and not broken down by player.

Hartman has also been roughed up, as all ACC quarterbacks are. But the 24 sacks Wake has taken through nine games is a far cry from what Wolford endured his freshman season.

It has become pretty apparent by now that Hartman, at this stage in his career, is not ready for all he has been asked to do. Coach Dave Clawson said as much after yesterday’s fifth loss of the season – which left the Deacons needing to win two of their final three to play in a bowl.

“We’ve got to get Sam to not turn the ball over,’’ Clawson said. “We’re putting way too much pressure on Sam right now.

“If he goes, we go. We’re in it together, but that’s the nature of the quarterback position.’’

So Clawson has been here twice already in his five seasons at Wake, throwing a freshman quarterback to the wolves.

The first time was not on him. The offensive cupboard was so bare when he and his staff arrived that freshman John Wolford was really the only option.

But he does bear responsibility for this season’s predicament. How valuable would it be if there was a back-up quarterback on the roster ready to come in and at least spell a rattled Hartman for a series or two, and perhaps even give the opposing defensive coordinator something else to worry about?

As I’ve written before, ostensibly that alternative should be Kendall Hinton, the guy Clawson described in such glowing terms these past three seasons. The way Clawson raved about Hinton’s electrifying elusiveness had me anticipating the ACC’s second coming of Lamar Jackson.

But as fate would have it, Hinton was suspended for the first three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules,’’ and his redshirt junior season has unraveled. If you’re like me (a disturbing thought indeed) you’d love to know the real story of Hinton’s season, the reason for the suspension and why he has played only a handful of plays through the first nine games.

But Clawson has followed the same script as most of his college coaching brethren and pulled the shutters down around the Wake program. Practices are closed, injuries are cloaked and the real reason a player is not playing is way too hard to pry out.

Don’t worry about it folks. It’s all on a need-to-know basis.

When finally asked about Hinton after Saturday’s loss, Clawson reached deep into the locked box for the disabled list. Again, Clawson prefers to talk about injuries after a game, and rarely before.

“Kendall is hurt again,’’ Clawson said. “We gave Kendall No. 5 today because we were going to get him involved with special teams. There were going to be chances when he and Cam Glenn (who also wears No. 2) would be on the field together. He was cleared to practice Tuesday, then he got hurt with a new injury. There was an ankle injury last week, and a hip flexor now.

“It’s just sometimes when it rains, it pours.’’

The downpour leaves Wake with three scholarship quarterbacks. Redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman looks the part, but has played only sparingly and hasn’t been all impressive while doing so. And Tayvon Bowers is a redshirt freshman who I know absolutely nothing about, other than he was beaten out by a quarterback who arrived at Wake six months after he did.

The quarterback who beat Bowers out, Sam Hartman, has shown promise. My guess is that, in time, he will end up being the answer for the Deacons’ quarterback needs. He may even turn out to be one of Wake’s all-time greats.

But he does need to toughen up, and learn how to deal with the physical demands of the position. Happy feet from your quarterbacks lead to sad results on the scoreboard.

In time – and he has plenty of it remaining – Hartman may turn out to be as resolute, as stouthearted, as indomitable as the quarterback he replaced.

I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll keep looking, but I haven’t seen it yet.