WINSTON-SALEM — The Florida State football program is only a shadow of its past glory these days. But that didn’t matter to Dave Clawson and his Wake Forest football team Saturday night.
To them, the Seminoles were still an albatross that desperately needed to be lifted from their collective back so that they could continue their steady rise to ACC prominence.
That’s what made the Deacons’ 22-20 victory at BB&T Field so meaningful and emotional.
It wasn’t just a win. It was also a milestone and a statement.
By breaking a seven-game losing streak to FSU, Wake didn’t just accomplish something it had never done before during Clawson’s tenure. It also gave those around the conference reason to finally start taking the Deacons seriously.
“This is satisfying,” Clawson, still dripping wet from the torrential downpour that persisted throughout the second half, said in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s result. “You can come up with a hundred different reasons (for that). We just beat Florida State. That doesn’t happen a lot.”
The last time it did, in 2011, Clawson was still coaching at Bowling Green while Wake was in the midst of a downward spiral still two years away from hitting rock bottom.
The Deacons have made significant strides since then, including three straight bowl victories and inclusion in the national rankings. At 6-1 overall (2-1 ACC), they can stake a legitimate claim to being the league’s second-team behind defending national champion Clemson.
Finally beating one of the Atlantic Division’s traditional heavyweights only adds to the list of accomplishments.
That they did it with a backup quarterback, in the rain on a night in which they had trouble getting the ball into the end zone made the win all the more impressive. It took a school record-tying five field goals from kicker Nick Sciba and a late stand by a defense that had been torched for 62 points a week earlier to complete the come-from-behind effort.
“I’m emotionally spent right now, which I usually don’t get,” Clawson said. “That was just such a hard, gritty win. There were like 10 times in that game that you said, ‘Geez, it might not happen tonight.’ And our kids never listened to those voices, and I’m just so incredibly proud of them.”
Clawson’s ominous thoughts were well-founded. Bad things usually happen when a team moves up and down the field as easily as the Deacons did on Saturday without being able to score touchdowns.
Even though offensive tackle Justin Herron reasoned afterward that “some points are better than no points,” it appeared as though all the unfinished drives would end up dooming Wake to an all-too-familiar ending against the Seminoles.
But quarterback Sam Hartman and his teammates weren’t about to let it happen again after FSU regained the lead at 22-19 with just over 11 minutes remaining.
Starting in place of an injured Jamie Newman in a reversal of roles from a year ago, Hartman drove his team 62 yards on 10 plays for what turned out to be the winning field goal by Sciba, It was a 27-yard kick that was as much about preparation as it was execution.
Anticipating bad weather from the remnants of Tropical Storm Nestor, Sciba, holder Dom Maggio and long snapper Dayton Diemel simulated the wet conditions by practicing Friday with footballs soaked in buckets of water.
“It was different, but every kick is the same kick, so I’ve got to go out there with the same mentality that I’ve got to do my job and make the kick,” Sciba said. “I think what helped is the day before we practiced wet ball work, snapping, holding, kicking.”
Unlike Sciba, Wake’s defense needed a complete overhaul of its mentality after a disastrous performance the week before in a 62-59 loss to Louisville. It was a dismal performance Clawson said his players “took personally,” and it showed in the way they bounced back against the Seminoles.
Although FSU rolled up 449 yards of total offense in the game, the much-maligned Deacons defense came through when it counted most — stopping one drive with a fumble recovery and coming up big on third down late in the game to force the Seminoles into a long field goal attempt that Ricky Aguayo missed wide left with just over two minutes remaining.
Then after FSU got the ball back in the final minute, Wake forced another fumble that was recovered by Blackman, before sealing the deal with a sack as time expired.
“It was definitely a statement,” defensive end Carlos Basham Jr. said. “Coach preached about moving on from last week and we took it to heart. This week’s practice every day was way better than it was and it showed on the field. … At the end of the game, the feeling was way better than that loss last week.”