WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — There’s a surprising three-way tie atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division with No. 3 Louisville, No. 5 Clemson and Wake Forest — yes, the Demon Deacons.
It’s still early in the season, of course, but the unranked and undefeated Demon Deacons (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are off to their best start in a decade. Picked last in the league’s preseason poll, they’re savoring their status as a division co-leader while also keeping it in perspective.
When asked about being a first-place team, linebacker Jaboree Williams cracked a smile Tuesday and said that’s “something that you know you can work with, definitely,” echoing coach Dave Clawson’s message.
“The coach-speak is, you always want to go 1-0 that week, but I think our players have really bought into that,” Clawson said. “Any group that is winning for the first time, they don’t take it for granted. … Their work ethic has been excellent, their preparation has been good, that attention to detail has never been better in our program, and I think our players have bought into the fact that those things do carry over to Saturday.”
They’ve already surpassed their win totals from both 2014 and ’15, when they finished 3-9 in each of Dave Clawson’s first two seasons. A victory over North Carolina State this weekend would give them their first 5-0 start since the 2006 team that captured a most unlikely league title and Orange Bowl berth.
“Obviously, when you start to win, you start to see these results. A lot of times it’s hard when you have a good week of practice and then at the end of the week, you lose, ‘They’re telling me this, and were not seeing the results,'” quarterback John Wolford said. “You can’t always play perfect, but then you see the wins, you start to realize, and I think, for a lot of the younger guys especially, they start to feel that importance of practice and how it’s translating to wins on the football field.”
The next challenge comes from a North Carolina State team that won both meetings against Clawson-led Wake Forest squads by an average of 23½ points and is favored by 11½ points in this one.
“I feel at the end of the day it all comes down to what we do, because if we execute our plan (on defense), then we can really have a good game against them,” Wolfpack safety Shawn Boone said. “But it’s really all about us, to be honest.”
Even the most optimistic Wake Forest fan probably didn’t see this coming — especially after the opener.
When the Demon Deacons began with a 7-3 win over Tulane, it looked like more of the same struggles were at hand for a team that had one of the nation’s worst offenses in 2014 and ’15. Wake Forest managed just 175 total yards — and 79 yards rushing — in that victory.
But after four games, that’s looking more like an outlier: In the past three weeks, the Demon Deacons have averaged nearly 32 points, 240 yards rushing and 407 total yards.
That’s quite a change. In recent years, a strong defense at times appeared to buckle under the pressure of carrying an offense that couldn’t get anything going. Wake Forest ranked 114th nationally in total offense last year and dead last — 128th — in 2014.
“I’ve said to the defense for two years that you are ahead, but you should be ahead,” Clawson said. “On offense, it was starting from scratch. … It takes time to build an (offensive) line. There’s not a shortcut for that position, and when you’re young and you’re weak up front, it’s hard to really do anything.”
After not scoring more than 24 points in any game during Clawson’s first two seasons, the Demon Deacons are coming off consecutive games of scoring in the 30s — including a 33-28 win at Indiana in which the defense allowed 611 total yards but intercepted six passes.
“It’s a good sign because we’re learning how to win games” in other ways, Wolford said.
AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org