The concern at halftime, Coach Dave Clawson said, was that Wake Forest’s defense had been on the field for 21 of 30 minutes in the first half.
What was feared at that time came to fruition in the second half, the Deacons getting worn down in Pittsburgh’s 34-13 win Saturday at BB&T Field.
“Obviously we’re playing slow on offense to try to keep our defense rested. But when your defense can’t get off the field on third down, and then that’s where the lack of depth really kills us,” Clawson said.
Pittsburgh (7-4, 6-1 ACC) deployed the grinding style that’s helped it to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, and Wake Forest knew that would be the case. The Panthers pounded running backs Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall into Wake Forest’s defense, which was up to the task of mostly limiting their opportunities to break long runs. The problem, though, was what that pounding opened up, otherwise.
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett hadn’t thrown for more than 197 yards in a game this season. In the past three games he completed eight, seven and seven passes.
Against the Deacons (5-6, 2-5), Pickett was 23 of 30 for 316 yards and three touchdowns — which is as many touchdowns as he had in the past four games combined.
“I think for the day, we stopped the run pretty well, for what they do. We just, we’ve gotta get off the field on third down,” said redshirt junior linebacker Justin Strnad. “I mean, that’s what it comes down to. We don’t get off the field on third down, that’s what extends the drives and makes it long and tires out the defense.”
Pittsburgh ended the game with nearly double the time of possession, 39:31 to 20:29. The Panthers had touchdown drives of 14 plays in 8:49, 11 plays in 6:58 and 11 plays in 5:03.
Add in Wake Forest’s sputtering offense that only had 285 yards, second-game starter Jamie Newman misfiring and running back Matt Colburn II on the sideline with an injury — the second half became an uphill climb in a hurry for the Deacons.
“The way the defense is set up, all week we preached being physical. We knew they would come out and be physical, try to run the ball on us and knock the defensive line off the ball,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Zeek Rodney. “Our focus was to be physical and play our gaps and handle our responsibilities, and in the first half I feel like we did that very well.
“But kind of got relaxed in the second half, didn’t come out as focused and that’s how a lot of the explosive plays came with the bootlegs and the play-action pass.”
Now, it’s an uphill battle to make it three straight seasons with bowl eligibility for the Deacons.
Wake Forest needs to win next weekend at Duke to reach a bowl game and, if the main theme of the season holds true for a 12th game, the Deacons will limp over to Durham. Missing in action for Saturday’s game were Colburn, junior cornerback Amari Henderson and backup linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr.
“We’ve gotta go. We didn’t meet all our goals this year, but we still believe we can make it to a bowl game,” Rodney said. “Duke is good team, but we go in there, it’s a rivalry game and we know we’ve gotta win to get to a bowl, so we’re going to give it all we’ve got. We’re going to prep like it’s our last game, because it could be.”
Wake Forest knows what it is, at this point. The Deacons have a defense that’s banged up, that’ll still be banged up in a week, but that’s capable of more than it showed Saturday — as evidenced by last week’s performance against N.C. State. That version of the Deacons’ defense needs to be the one in Durham.
And Wake Forest’s offense, through two games of Newman at the helm, knows where its strengths are — it showed them against the Wolfpack, too. It knows where its weaknesses are — those were on display against Pittsburgh.
It’ll come together against Duke — or it’ll all come to an end.
“We have to win, next week. It’s a must-win, 100 percent. We’ve gotta give everything we’ve got and we have to win next week. It’s not a — we have to win,” Strnad said.