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NC State and Wake Forest collide after turning a corner at the same time

Well. It’s on the schedule, we have to do it.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

If you remember the 1990s, as I do on occasion, it’s wild to think about how Wake Forest basketball and football have gone in completely different directions. Without question, Wake has been a football school for the majority of this century.

The Deacs made two shrewd football coaching hires that changed that program’s prospects dramatically for the better; the Deacs have also made two basketball coaching hires that threw the entire 2010s down the drain.

The second of those shrewd football hires was Dave Clawson, who joined the ACC from the MAC a year after Dave Doeren joined the ACC from the MAC. Clawson’s initial struggles were more prolonged—Wake went 1-7 in league play his first two years—but his program has since earned five straight bowl bids.

This season has been a breakthrough for Wake and Clawson in a variety of ways: the Deacs are not just in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division, but can top eight wins for the first time since 2007, or win 10+ for the first time since 2006. This will also be Clawson’s first above-.500 season in ACC play.

Saturday’s game is a meeting between the ACC’s two most opportunistic teams—teams that, in other words, have been able to put Clemson in the rearview. This spot has been years in the making for Wake Forest, and it starts with Sam Hartman, who is in his fourth college season and is still, technically, a redshirt sophomore.

Hartman was a starter early on, then lost his job to Jamie Newman, then reclaimed it after Newman left, then decided to become one of the ACC’s best passers. Hartman ranks second in the ACC in yards per attempt, touchdown passes, and passer rating; he’s one of three ACC quarterbacks averaging 300+ yards passing per game. (It’s been a great year for QBs in the ACC, if you hadn’t noticed.)

As a whole, Wake’s offense has improved by a yard per play from 2020 to 2021. As the passing game has become more of a matchup problem for everyone, so Wake’s running game has become more of a threat. There’s a former Wake Forest running back who is now a Heisman Trophy frontrunner at Michigan State, and the Deacs have been better on the ground despite his absence. Surprises abound.

The core difference for Wake this year is Hartman’s maturation, sure, but don’t overlook how good Clawson’s staff has been at developing receivers, and how much that has mattered. They always have dudes. Greg Dortch, Sage Surratt, Kendall Hinton; more recently, Sage Surratt, Donavon Greene, Jaquarii Roberson, and A.T. Perry. Roberson went from six catches in 2019 to 62 last year (in nine games) and 50 through nine this year. Perry caught 15 balls last year and has 42 this season.

You keep developing playmakers year after year at receiver, eventually you’re gonna end up with said playmakers coinciding with a really good quarterback, and baby, then you got a stew going. Wake has the eighth-best offense in the country, according to SP+.

Great offense. Big problems. Large scary. But then there is the Wake Forest defense, which is rather generously ranked 76th by SP+. The Deacs have been fortunate to average two takeaways per game, but no offense with a pulse has struggled with these guys on a down-to-down basis.

In league games, Wake is allowing 6.3 yards per play. Toss Duke out of the mix and Wake hasn’t limited an opposing offense to under 5.9 YPP since early September. Since the beginning of October, three teams—Louisville, Army, UNC—have averaged better than seven yards per play against them.

I mean there’s like 45 different ways I could illustrate to you how the Wake Forest defense has largely had itself a rough time in 2021. Those dudes ain’t good. But they have forced turnovers, and Wake has been even or better in turnover margin in every game but one. (The one they lost.)

Wake’s offense is not just potent, it also takes good care of the ball, and that combined with the defense’s opportunism has meant a lot to the Deacs’ fortunes. This is not a team that usually beats itself, and that goes a long way.

Can NC State be better Saturday? Can NC State play a cleaner game? Can NC State find a way to be more opportunistic and beat Wake at its own game?

There are a lot of ghosts swirling that damnable football stadium in Winston-Salem. What’s happened before has no bearing on the here and now, and if we want to go full circle, then maybe there’s a reason why Emeka Emezie came back for one more year. Welcome to my pep talk.

The margins are thin everywhere. The crowd is going to make this feel like a super-festive bowl game. It’s going to be one of the weirdest atmospheres we’ll encounter all year. Sam Hartman is great. Devin Leary is playing really well. Both teams have everything to play for.

I’m not ready for this game, but it’s happening anyway. Who knows. We’ll see.