There’s work left to be done for Wake Forest’s football team, but there’s also one particular aspect that has shined throughout season — and it’s unlikely to become a blemish in the final two games.
“If you look at a statistical comparison of us from ’18 to ’19, there’s not one area in our football team that’s more improved than our third-down defense,” Coach Dave Clawson said.
The Deacons allowed third-down conversions at a 42.2% clip last season, which was 98th in the country.
The Deacons enter Saturday’s regular-season finale at Syracuse allowing third-down conversions at a rate of 29.7%, which is 12th in the country (going into Friday’s games).
“We push each other to just keep getting better and better because the minute you slack off is when you do terrible on third downs,” sophomore linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. said. “Every week, the coaches preach attitude and effort and then we build that mentality going into the game.
“We play with fanatical effort and a crazy, intense attitude. And then when third down comes, we’re ready for that dime, we’re ready for that blitz and we want it so bad.”
The emphasis was clear in spring practice and throughout fall camp. Defensive coordinator Lyle Hemphill and the defensive staff were tasked with addressing the third-down woes.
Wake Forest held Duke to a 1-for-11 mark on third downs last week, the best percentage of the season. In the three losses, Wake Forest has allowed a 33.3% conversion rate — which would still be tied for 22nd in the country.
The numbers speak for themselves, and Clawson was quick to point out that credit for the improvement goes to Hemphill and the coaching staff.
“They knew after last season it was a problem. We lacked consistency in our third-down package. And we spent a lot of time on it. We continue to spend a lot of time on it, but we have a package,” Clawson said. “We got a certain volume of defense ready in spring and preseason camp so that when we install things in game week, it’s not new stuff.”
That’s something the players have recognized, too.
“From the spring, Coach Hemphill, we knew we had to get better on third down,” said sophomore safety Nasir Greer, who had a third-down pass break-up in the fourth quarter against Duke. “We practiced so hard in the spring, summer, fall camp, put a big emphasis on winning third down and I really think it translated all year this year.”
Wake Forest struggled to finish drives defensively last season, and has reversed that aspect this year.
There’s another aspect that can be repeated and is related to finishing things: Wake Forest finished its season strong a year ago, with three wins in the final four games, the middle of those being a 59-7 win at Duke in the regular-season finale.
A win at Syracuse would send Wake Forest into a bowl game at 9-3 with a chance to capture the second 10-win season in school history.
Clawson has said since arriving in Winston-Salem that he wants the Deacons playing meaningful games in November — and Wake Forest is certainly still doing so. Now it can finish with a winning November record (3-2) for the first time since 2008.
“There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of people are excited, like they should be, about what this season has brought and what it’s meant, but we have to stay in the moment. I think that’s huge,” senior running back Cade Carney said. “Especially when you get more people talking about you and it’s not so much we’re creating our own juice, but there’s a lot of people talking around us and there’s a lot of buzz and that’s great.
“But we have to be able to stay in the moment and to focus on what’s right here this week.”