There were still 10 minutes to go, but a steady line of taillights carved red paths on the roads leading away from what was once upon a time known as Groves Stadium. The Wake Forest fans had seen enough, and in the best possible way.
It was barely a generation ago that Wake Forest fans often fled early to avoid the end of yet another blowout loss, and yet here they were Saturday, uninterested in the final touches of a thorough 45-7 homecoming drubbing of Duke. How quickly they have become accustomed to football success, although they’ve never, ever seen an 8-0 team.
These two former ACC doormats have tasted more than their share of that lately, Wake Forest under Jim Grobe, Duke under David Cutcliffe and now Wake under Dave Clawson. Grobe and Cutcliffe both took their teams to the ACC title game, while Clawson may very well this year. And just as Clawson resurrected Wake Forest (8-0, 5-0) after things withered at the end of the Grobe era, Duke (3-5, 0-4) may now face the same task after hitting what has to be bottom.
“Everybody in this program is hurting right now,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s not something we feel or have had to go through very often.”
Combined with the 48-0 loss at Virginia two weeks ago and the last-second loss to Georgia Tech the week before, Duke allowed 100 straight points before Riley Leonard broke up the shutout with a 2-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The first winless ACC season of Cutcliffe’s tenure looks like an increasing possibility.
Not that Wake Forest needed to beat Duke by 38 to prove it, but the Deacons are clearly the ACC’s top dogs at this point, and in a bit of a changing of the guard at that.
Clemson’s struggles continued against Florida State, which has issues of its own. Pittsburgh, to this point the pacesetter in the Coastal Division, stumbled Saturday at home against resurgent Miami, reopening the door to Coastal Chaos yet again. North Carolina has been a disappointment. N.C. State still can’t stand prosperity, although the Wolfpack’s path to the title game is very much alive — and runs through Winston-Salem.
There’s only one dominant team in the ACC right now, only one that can really be counted on week after week, and it’s the one that’s perpetually and inevitably overlooked, year after year. Wake Forest was picked fifth in the Atlantic Division in the preseason poll, but after five straight middle-tier bowls, the Deacons are just outside the top 10 and thinking about ringing in the new year somewhere warm. Or maybe Atlanta.
“I don’t think we’re getting the respect we deserve,” Wake Forest receiver Jaquarii Roberson said. “So we’ve got to keep pushing, got to keep fighting, got to keep battling, got to keep winning football games.”
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It’s increasingly hard to overlook or ignore Wake Forest, not only as the wins pile up, but the dominance on both sides of the ball, especially an explosive offense quarterbacked by the versatile Sam Hartman — who threw for 402 yards Saturday, ran for 62 and accounted for five touchdowns. The Demon Deacons didn’t even need to use their slow-developing run-pass-option game against Duke, often their primary weapon. Running a more vanilla playbook didn’t matter.
Even former Wake Forest players are having a year; Kenneth Walker III transferred to Michigan State and not only ran for five touchdowns in a win over Michigan on Saturday but has played his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation in a wide-open race with no clear favorite.
The toughest part of the schedule awaits: a nonconference game at North Carolina, the Atlantic Division winner-probably-takes-all showdown against N.C. State, then at Clemson and Boston College. It’s already fascinating to wonder now how the College Football Playoff committee would appraise an undefeated ACC champion with nonconference wins against Old Dominion, Norfolk State, Army and UNC and an ACC title-game win over Pittsburgh, Virginia or Miami.
“When we talked about going from good to great, we talked about a being a program that would be nationally ranked,” Clawson said. “We want to keep that going. We wanted to be a team that had a chance to compete for the ACC championship going into November and get to Charlotte. We want to be the best team in the state. Certainly there’s a dream and an aspirational goal of being in the College Football Playoff talk. So much of that doesn’t come down to record, it comes down to ranking and the committee. We want to be in that discussion.”
It’s not the kind of resume that would scream “pick me” in a year when the perception — and the reality, but perception is all that matters with the CFP — is that the ACC is down. The ACC, at the moment, has six wins over Power 5 opponents. (UNC can make it seven at Notre Dame late Saturday night.) Duke has two of them. Scoff at Northwestern and Kansas if you like, but it’s more than anyone else.
As for Duke, what can you say at this point? Everything that went wrong against Virginia continued to go wrong against Wake Forest. Cutcliffe said it: “We can’t play much worse than we did.”
“Nobody’s going to run from this fight,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m a firm believer in these players. I believe they have the ability and desire to be winners. What we have to do is put them in better positions to be able to win the game. That’s little things, big things, the list is pretty long.”
The Blue Devils were able to move the ball early Saturday but twice failed to convert fourth downs deep in Wake territory in the first half and Mataeo Durant — who went over 100 yards in the first half — fumbled at the end of a long run across midfield. Finish those drives and it may be 21-21 instead of 28-0.
If and buts, though, and the reality is Duke just isn’t competitive at this point. It’s been an amazing run for Cutcliffe at Duke — it’s easy now to forget the absolute state of that program when he walked in the door — and there’s still time to show progress this season … but consecutive results like this raise questions that don’t have easy answers.
“I would be lying if I said I thought there would be some quit in (this) team, but it’s mental. It’s not Xs and Os,” Duke receiver Jake Bobo said. “How can we get each other up and going next Saturday?”
It was only eight years ago that Duke was riding high much like Wake Forest is now, only to be thumped by Florida State in Charlotte and then Johnny Manziel in the second half of the Peach Bowl. The tables have turned, and not only between these teams, but across the league. At the moment, the entire ACC is in Wake Forest’s rear-view mirror.
This story was originally published October 30, 2021 7:40 PM.
Source : https://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/luke-decock/article255415711.html1808