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.

Wake Turns to Nestor Once Again

A disclosure is in order at the beginning of this take on Wake basketball concerning the hire of Ernie Nestor.

Ernie is a good friend. We got to know each other pretty well during his first stint as Wake assistant coach for Carl Tacy from 1979 through 1985, and became even better friends when he returned to assist Dave Odom during the glory years from 1993 through 2001.

We’ve kept up over his vagabond seasons as a basketball coach, and I’ve always thought the world of Ernie. Of course that puts me in the vast majority of those who have crossed paths with him, and the prevailing reason his return to Wake is being celebrated by so many around the campus and the basketball program.

Ernie is warm, sharp, caring and decent, as well as one of the most interesting and engaging people I had the pleasure of getting to know during my four-plus decades as a working sportswriter. He has sat on benches at James Madison, Wake, California, George Mason, South Carolina, Elon, Penn State, Missouri and Navy, so he knows just a bit about how the game should be played – and coached.

And to see that he is being brought in to help right the ship, in my mind, is a most encouraging development for a program that has been capsized far too many years. Or at least it has the potential to be.

The release through the media relations department states that Ernie has been hired as Special Assistant to the Head Coach. Otherwise his job description is pretty much left up to the imagination.

But in calling around and checking I have confirmed that he won’t be one of the three full-fledged assistants the NCAA allows every Division I program, he won’t be giving individual instruction and he won’t be hitting the recruiting trail.

What that leaves is that Ernie has been brought in to coach the coaches, or at least do as much coaching as said coaches allow.

And though the delicate politics of the situation would preclude anyone from saying this – not head coach Danny Manning, not Athletics Director Ron Wellman, and certainly not Ernie Nestor himself – it has become apparent to many over these past four years that when it comes to directing an ACC basketball program, Danny Manning needs all the help he can get.

When I first saw Wake’s new slogan for the basketball program was #newbeginnings, I began to wonder if early signs of Alzheimer’s were setting in.

At my advanced age of 66, I reckon we have have to become concerned with such.

I was still working the beat for the Winston-Salem Journal when Manning was hired as head coach, and I could have sworn that was back in April of 2014. If this is a new beginning, then what happened to the past four seasons under the same coach coaching today?

Oh now I remember. The Deacons won 54 games, lost 72 and finished 12th, 13th, 10th and 14th in the ACC regular-season standings. To call a fifth straight season under the same coach a new beginning strains credulity, but hey, if whoever came up with the slogan can get away with it, then more power to them.

When Wellman replaced Jeff Bzdelik with Manning, I thought at the time that the move might work. Manning, after all, is a legendary name in basketball from his “Danny and the Miracles’’ NCAA Player of the Year days at Kansas through his 15 seasons in the NBA. His name and acclaim, I figured, should help him at least get in the living rooms of the caliber of recruits needed to win the ACC.

He was smart enough to start his coaching career on the ground floor back at his alma mater, and he showed potential in his new chosen field when his second team at Tulsa went on enough of a tear to win the Conference-USA Tournament and play in the NCAA Tournament.

But there was still that question about experience, and whether his elevation to a head job in the ACC in only his third season as a head coach would require more on-the-job training than any fan base – or administration for that matter – would or should be willing to abide.

Hey, history informs us that on-the-job training can work out. Dean Smith’s first head job was at North Carolina. Tony Bennett was head coach for only three seasons at Washington State when Virginia came calling.

The problem at Wake was that Manning, from all we could tell given the closed nature of the program, wasn’t showing growth as a coach. The mistakes he was making in 2014 were still being made in 2018.

He’s a proud man, and with pride comes stubbornness. Meanwhile one player after another was bolting the program for pastures green or otherwise, requiring Wake to depend on inexperienced talent season after disappointing season.

Those searching for eternal youth haven’t been checking out the Wake basketball roster.

So now somebody – and I would have to guess this is Wellman’s hand on the controls – has convinced Manning of the need to bring in an old head to help with X’s and O’s, game management, player development and the overall ins and outs of running a major-college basketball program.

A program that has gotten so much wrong over these past 10 years finally got something right. The Deacons needed a consultant to help the coaches, and they went out and got the perfect guy.

He’s perfect because he’s Wake to the marrow, and he’s perfect because his ego is, and always has been, completely in check.

If this works out, and Wake is a better team with Ernie Nestor lending his shoulder to the wheel, then the last person you will hear that from will be Ernie Nestor.

The season starts with Friday’s exhibition against Belmont Abbey, and I can’t tell you the last time I’ve felt this good about the direction of the Wake basketball program.

Karma 56, Louisville 35

On the karmic scale of 0-100, Wake Forest’s 56-35 victory at Louisville yesterday registered somewhere north of 250.

Even someone who trained themselves for four decades to not exult or despair over the outcome of an athletic event could take deep satisfaction in the way this one came down.

There was Bobby Petrino, as reptilian of a coach as I ever had the displeasure of crossing paths with, screaming at a team that had clearly given up on him, in front of a cavernous stadium with row after row of empty seats.

There was Lonnie Galloway, the former Wake assistant who conspired to cheat his old employer, standing on the Louisville sidelines wondering where he’ll be coaching next season.

There was Matt Colburn, the running back who had his scholarship offer from Louisville yanked two days before signing day, running over, around and through the dispirited Cardinal defense to three touchdowns and a career-best 243 rushing yards.

There was a Wake defense that had been summarily dismantled by Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson reassembling at least well enough to keep the Deacons’ bowl hopes alive.

And making the spectacle all the more enjoyable was the opportunity to take it all in with an old friend. I call him an old friend, even though he’s only about half my age.

His name is Evan Lepler, and he was the play-by-play guy in yesterday’s Fox Sport Southeast telecast.

I was lucky enough to get to know Evan during his pass through Wake Forest a dozen or so years ago, and even had the pleasure of meeting his folks, Steve and Ramie of Sharon, Mass., on that historic day the Deacons played Louisville in the Orange Bowl.

Good folks.

I’ve closely followed Lepler’s rise through the ranks from the play-by-play announcer for the Salem Redbirds of the Carolina League, through his involvement with Ultimate Frisbee on to an ever-increasing number of assignments to major college football and basketball. A favorite saying of mine is that good things happen to good people, and the good things that have been happening to Evan Lepler these past couple of years include the marriage to his sweetheart Caleigh, and the arrival of the apple of their eyes, little miss Olivia Bennett.

Listen. Evan is a friend so I’m going to tell you he’s a good play-by-play regardless of his abilities. But thankfully I don’t have to deceive anyone by saying Evan is not only good, he’s getting better game by game.

That’s the way with smart people. They get better the more they do whatever they’ve chosen to do, and I fully expect Evan Lepler to be a heavyweight in his chosen field long before Olivia Bennett begins to consider colleges she might attend.

He’s clearly a pro, which is why anyone who didn’t know his background could have ever guessed he graduated from Wake in 2007. It would have been disappointing to hear him spend the telecast waving black and gold pom poms.

But by this point in his career, I have to believe he doesn’t live and die with the outcome of a sporting event. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and Saturday’s game might have been as close to that exception as Evan is going to experience this season.

Again, smart people get better the more they do what they’ve chosen to do. In that vein, Dave Clawson has spent 19 years getting better and better as a football coach.

As I’ve written before, coaches, like players, like everybody, have their good seasons and their bad seasons. Coming out of last week’s loss at Florida State, it was pretty apparent that Dave Clawson was having a bad season.

The argument could be made that he was a victim of his own success, that he had raised the expectations to a point that it was becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy the masses. And there’s no disputing that the breaks have gone against the Deacons this season, what with the early suspension to Kendall Hinton and the epidemic of injuries that have ravaged critical positions on defense.

But here we are eight games into the season, and the Deacons have a fighting chance to win six games and play in a bowl for the third straight campaign. They gave themselves that chance by beating Louisville and improving to 4-4 with Syracuse (home), N.C. State (away), Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play.

Dave Clawson proved to me in his first four seasons at Wake that he’s a good coach, one of the best the school has ever been lucky enough to hire. And I remained convinced Dave Clawson is a good football coach – albeit one having a bad season — even when his team was giving up 41 points to BC, 56 to Notre Dame and 63 to Clemson.

But if he can somehow get this team to a bowl in this, of all seasons, then it would be one of the best performances from any coach I’ve every crossed paths with. If Wake plays in a bowl in 2018, the school should erect a statue to Dave Clawson.

If Wake plays in a bowl in 2018, he’ll be worth more to the school than said school could ever hope to pay him.

Speaking of schools paying football coaches, it’s going to be fun to see if Louisville digs deep enough to come up with the $14 million buyout it will take to get rid of Bobby Petrino.

On a day that Petrino was looking about as a bad as coach can look, two folks from Wake – one in the television booth and one directing the victory on the sidelines — were looking mighty, mighty good.

Never bet against karma.

All-Points-Bulletin Out for Kendall Hinton

I just think that Kendall Hinton is too good an athlete. He makes too many plays. If we don’t utilize Kendall Hinton, that’s a huge, huge mistake.’’Dave Clawson, Aug. 2016.

For three seasons, Coach Dave Clawson couldn’t say enough nice things about Kendall Hinton – no matter how hard he tried.

And he tried really hard. Trust me on this one. I was still riding the Wake beat for the Winston-Salem Journal at the time and was hearing, over and over again how dynamic, how explosive, how elusive one Kendall Hinton of Southern Durham High School really, really was.

Clawson was so high on Hinton that he named him the starter going into my last preseason camp of 2017, over another guy named John Wolford who, in the final game of the previous season, had directed a 34-26 bowl victory over Temple.

Fast forward through a season and a half, through Wolford’s ascent into the pantheon of all-time Wake quarterbacks and Hinton’s three-game suspension to start the 2018 campaign, all the way to Saturday’s trip to Tallahassee to play struggling Florida State. Or at least the Seminoles were struggling until they had the chance to play what’s left of Clawson’s fifth team at Wake.

I listened transfixed to Clawson’s post-game after FSU’s methodical 38-17 beat-down, and heard how the Deacons were down to one scholarship linebacker, Justin Strnad, and how hard converted safety Luke Masterson played, and how the offense continues to struggle in the hands of freshman quarterback Sam Hartman, who completed 22 of 46 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing an interception and getting sacked four times.

“He was very up-and-down,’’ Clawson said. “He really struggled. He made some really poor decisions in the pocket. We get a first-and-10 and get a re-set, and he takes a 12-yard sack. And we go for it on fourth down and he takes another sack and we give them the ball at midfield. And then third-down we go for it – obviously we go for it on third down – but nobody’s open and he just goes backwards

“So he made some really poor decisions in the pocket and they cost us a lot of yardage. This isn’t high-school football. You play defensive ends that are faster than you. He’s a true freshman quarterback and he competes and he plays hard, but he’s learning some lessons the hard way.’’

It was never the plan, Clawson went on to say, to play a freshman quarterback, which at least implies that the dynamic, explosive elusive Kendall Hinton screwed up Plan A by getting himself suspended for three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules.’’

Hinton was so elusive on Saturday that he wasn’t even in Tallahassee. Clawson prefers to talk about injuries after a game instead of before. Turns out Hinton turned his ankle during the off-week, an injury that went undisclosed – as undisclosed as Hinton’s reasons for missing the first three games – until Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal tweeted the news out to us civilians sometime during the second half.

So what, we’re left to wonder, is the story with the dynamic, explosive, elusive Kendall Hinton? We know he was moved to slot receiver following the suspension, but then heard he had been moved back to his time-tested role of back-up quarterback. There were even fleeting Kendall Hinton sightings against Notre Dame, Rice and Clemson, though he hardly looked like the answer while throwing incomplete on all five of his attempts against the Tigers.

I, for one, wondered if Clawson would take advantage of the off-week to work the dynamic, explosive, elusive Kendall Hinton back into the mix. But little did I know, and apparently little did anyone outside the program know, that the dynamic, explosive elusive Kendall Hinton had been added to the Deacons’ ever-burgeoning injury list.

Look, I have no idea if Clawson should turn to Hinton in an effort to save the season. I don’t go to practices anymore. But, one problem with trying to follow this team, is that nobody goes to practices anymore. Any information we get is spoon-fed to us civilians by Clawson and the players, when it’s disseminated at all.

It has become apparent that Clawson felt compelled to throw Hartman into the fray before Hartman was ready. Clawson as much as admitted that Saturday. Maybe the offensive game plan is so baked-in by now that attempting a dramatic overhaul at this stage would be folly. Maybe now that he’s in for a dime with Hartman, Clawson is in for the whole dollar.

But we also saw Clawson’s other option, Jamie Newman, on Saturday, and Newman hardly distinguished himself. The other scholarship quarterback, Tayvon Bowers, is a redshirt freshman who was beaten out by a freshman. Bowers has yet to see the field.

John Wolford started at quarterback for four seasons. That means Clawson and his staff had four seasons to recruit depth at football’s most critical positions. Seven games through his fifth season, Clawson does not have a quarterback who appears capable of winning games against upper-division ACC competition.

Or if he does, he’s not playing him.

As it stands today, your guess is as good as mine.

Will Clawson Adjust, Bye and Bye?

Dave Clawson is a football coach, and as such shouldn’t be expected to know the proper usage of the English language as well as, say, a retired sportswriter blogging his way down from 40 years in the business

And this particular retired sportswriter blogging his way down from 40 years in the business wouldn’t know the English language as well as I should without the direction of Terry Oberle, the best editor any sportswriter could ever hope to have.

Terry was the one who drilled incessantly into his staff how a team with a bye is one that advances in a tournament without having to play.

So Wake has no bye after Saturday’s 63-3 undressing by Clemson in front of a sea of orange at BB&T Field. The Deacons, thankfully for the sake of everyone save perhaps a prospective opponent, are simply off this coming Saturday.

Terry also warned against the use of decimated as a synonym of annihilated or destroyed. The word, as the first syllable suggests, comes from the understanding that any Roman legion guilty of cowardice or dishonor in battle would have one  of every 10 legionnaires yanked from the ranks and killed.

Unless precisely one of every 10 Wake players has been knocked out of action because of injury, the Deacons have not been decimated. They have been ravaged. They have been devastated. And they have been gutted.

They have not, technically speaking, been decimated.

But again, as a football coach, Dave Clawson can certainly be forgiven for the kind of linguistic mistakes that pretty much 98.3 percent of all those conversant in the English language make constantly. And for me to even point out his misuse could be seen as petty.

OK, those who feel that are right. It’s petty, and I own it.

Yet that still leaves me with the question of how willing are those who still care about Wake football to forgive Clawson for the much more consequential mistakes he has made with this, his fifth team in Winston-Salem.

The mistake that is becoming more and more apparent with every passing pasting was implementing a warp-speed, RPO offense without a defense capable of shouldering its share of the load. Making matters worse, he did so with a freshman quarterback not ready for prime-time Power Five football.

In losses to BC, Notre Dame and Clemson, Sam Hartman has completed 39 of 89 passes (44 percent) for 133 yards per game while throwing more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (2).

The Deacons, through six games, have run 511 plays, 30 more than any other ACC team. Their pace, along with the inability to sustain drives, has required the Wake defense to defend 451 plays. Among ACC teams, only BC (475 defensive plays) and FSU (455 defensive plays) have asked as much from their defenses.

The work load has also contributed heavily to the ever-lengthening disabled list, which going into the off week, appears longer on defense than the list of those available to play. And like me, you’ve probably noticed Clawson mentioning the epidemic of injuries more and more often as the losses pile up.

Spending four decades covering sports can make a man rather hard-bitten. Again I admit it. I own it. But every time I hear a football coach bellyache about injuries, I recall a conversation with my fast friend Ron Morris, who spent part of his career as sports editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Ron would have an opening on staff, and fly a candidate in for interviews. The first words the prospect would mention upon deplaning was how hot it was in Tallahassee.

To which Ron would reply, “Well, it’s July in Florida. So yeah, you’re right. It’s hot.’’

And that’s pretty much my answer to any football coach who complains about injuries. Well, football is a collision sport. So yeah, you’re right. Players get hurt.’’

Good teams overcome injuries through recruiting and development. Bad teams don’t.

Throughout fall camp and the first games, I kept wondering if Wake had enough players on defense who were, in the words of Clawson, playable. And that’s another reason to question his decision to run a warp-speed offense.

It’s hard to recall a team in more need of an off-week, which, coming from a sportswriter who rode the Wake beat for 25 years, is really saying something. And I go into the off-week curious as can be about what adjustments Clawson and his staff will make before returning to the field at Florida State on Oct. 20.

Clawson entered the season pretty much compelled to play Hartman. One quarterback candidate, Kendall Hinton, was suspended for the first three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules” and another, Jamie Newman, was hurt.

But now that he has two weeks to retool his offense, Clawson has some options. He can certainly insert the more experienced Hinton, and see what his speed and elusiveness might do to jump-start a stalled-out attack. And obviously he can down-shift on offense, and run fewer plays to give his defense a chance to catch its breath between three-and-outs.

Clawson is a good football coach. Other than the ill-fated season spent as offensive coordinator at Tennessee, he has proven it everywhere he has been – just as he proved it his first four seasons at Wake.

But good coaches have bad seasons, and thus far Clawson has had a bad season. He has already pulled one lever by dispatching his defensive coordinator, Jay Sawvel, four games into the season. What other moves will he be willing to make, and will they make a difference?

To those questions, your guess is as good as mine. But I do feel comfortable making one prediction.

The identity of the starting quarterback for Wake will be as closely-guarded a secret as the nuclear code. If a coach is unwilling to reveal an injury to a back-up quarterback (Newman) going into a home game against an opponent as inept as Rice, he’s certainly not going to tip his hand as to who starts at FSU.

Where Did Cubs’ Mojo Go?

A word I use with increasing regularity these days is DONE.

That’s done, as in the last year or two I was working as a sportswriter, I was DONE. I endeavored to put in an honest day’s work, and I feel my experience and network of contacts and friends allowed me to, more often than not, do so. But long before I retired a year ago August, I was DONE.

That’s done, as in, my bride Tybee has been teaching elementary school pretty much all her adult life, she’s seen and dealt with it all, and now she’s DONE. She still loves the kids, she knows she spent her career doing what she should be doing, and she’s still a teacher any student or parent should be thankful to have. But each day it gets a little harder to haul her cart of books and papers and notebooks up the steps of our house at the end of another interminable day.

Trust me on this one. She’s DONE.

That’s done, as in even if my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs had somehow clawed past the Colorado Rockies in last night’s Wild Card game, as far as the 2018 season goes, they were long since DONE.

Slugger Kris Bryant, battling a bum shoulder that may well need off-season surgery, was clearly not the same Kris Bryant opposing pitchers had come to know and fear.

Shortstop Addison Russell was put on ice for an undetermined length of time while the accusations of domestic abuse hopefully get sorted out one way or another.

Closer Brandon Morrow, nursing a bone bruise in his pitching arm, had long since been shut down for the season.

Catcher Willson Contreras, such a beast in the first half of the season, had transformed before our very eyes into a patsy at the plate who never could frame pitches well enough to for his pitchers to get an honest strike.

The bats had gone so limp, in fact, that the Cubs managed all of two runs over the final 22 innings of the season. Even manager Joe Maddon was under the weather in the final game, watching his once mighty team stagger through 13 innings to the 2-1 collapse he had to see coming.

Again, even if they had somehow pulled it out, the Cubs appeared to be no threat to the Brewers or anyone else they might match up with along the way. The Cubs were clearly DONE.

We who pulled for the Cubs hoped like hell they would somehow pull a Muddy Waters (he of Windy City fame) and finally at long last Get Their Mojo Working. But the record will show that the Cubs Mojo had long since packed and gone, leaving the Cubs, indubitably DONE.

And that’s OK. It had better be, because that’s the story of life.

The fan who expects their team to win it all all the time is destined for heartbreak and sorrow. The best we can hope for really is that our team plays well enough to give us something to follow until the end. Not every season is going to be 2016. It took the Cubs 108 years to reign again over the baseball world, and I’m thankful I lived long enough to see it.

Besides, there’s always next season. Hope spring eternal, and all that.

One great hope I had from watching the game on ESPN2’s Statcast (which I really got off on) is that Major League Baseball will, sooner rather than later, turn to the electronic strike zone. And I’m not saying this as sour grapes. My own take was that the Cubs got at least as many calls go their way as the Rockies, and besides, as I stated at length earlier, the Cubs were already a dead team walking.

Home plate umpire Chris Guccione, the stat freaks on ESPN keep noting, is said to be a “Hitter’s Ump,’’ in that he calls fewer strikes than most his eagle-eyed brethren. To hear that really, really disturbs me.

The strike zone is the strike zone. It’s to be called, not interpreted.

And it pains me to see a pitcher make the perfect pitch – especially in a “High-Leverage Situation” – and it be called a ball. It pains me equally to see the batter take the cutter two inches off the plate, and be rung up for the final out.

The three-dimension strike zone they kept showing on ESPN was, to me at least, further evidence that the technology exists for lasers and cameras and monitors to do what the human eye simply cannot always do. As I’ve written before, a pitch from a Major League pitcher darts, slides, cuts and veers toward the plate at 95 miles an hour, and the umpire is expected to determine whether it dissected at any point on its path the strike zone.

This is no knock on Guccione, who, surprisingly, turned into a pitcher’s umpire on this particular occasion. He’s only a human being asked to do what humanly cannot be done.

In time, baseball will turn to the electronic strike zone. It’s inevitable. I just wish the powers that be would go along and make the move, for the benefit of all. It’ll then be a far better game, giving managers, and players and fans something other than balls and strikes to bitch about.

The pitcher who paints the corner will get the call. The batter who has the sand to take a pitch two inches off the plate, will get the call. Baseball will be a better game.

And when baseball finally does turn to the electronic strike zone, I hope it’s done right. Wire home plate in a way that it turns a bright scarlet – bright enough for everyone in the park to see – when the pitch catches the zone.

Doing so would certainly make the rest of the playoffs more fun to watch. And speaking of the rest of the playoffs, go Braves. I was around Brian Snitker enough during his lifetime in the Carolina League to get to know and like him, and he’s a great story.

So go Braves and go Yankees. Here’s hoping for an Atlanta/Big Apple series.

The Cubs may be DONE, but the 2018 season, thankfully, roars on.

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.