Deacons start fast, close strong to beat Virginia

Wake Forest running back Kenneth Walker III celebrates with his teammates after scoring one of his three rushing touchdowns in the Demon Deacons’ 40-23 win Saturday over Virginia in Winston-Salem. (Andrew Dye / Winston-Salem Journal/ via AP)

Kenneth Walker III had 128 rushing yards and three touchdowns, Sam Hartman threw for 309 yards and the Wake Forest defense held Virginia to just three second half points in a 40-23 win Saturday at Truist Field in Winston-Salem.

The Demon Deacons evened their record at 2-2 on the season while the Cavaliers lost their third straight after opening the year with a win.

Three thoughts

1. Every coach wants his team to start fast and finish strong, and while Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson might not be thrilled with what came in the middle, he has to be happy with the bookends of his team’s performance.

The Deacons scored two touchdowns in the first 3:39 of the game to jump out to a two-touchdown lead, and then — after Virginia tied the game with a field goal early in the fourth quarter — got in the end zone twice to take control. Running back Kenneth Walker III went 75 yards up the left side to help Wake reclaim the lead, and after the Cavaliers fumbled the ensuing “sky ball” kickoff, Walker scored again on a 9-yard run four plays later.

2. The sky ball recovery felt like a dagger in the hearts of the Cavaliers after Walker’s big run, and Clawson credited his special teams coaches with bringing Virginia’s vulnerability to his attention.

“Coach (Wayne) Lineburg and coach (Ryan) Crawford noticed that their one back was really cheating in. And they just said, ‘Hey, listen — I think we have this guy at the dead area there that we could probably keep them inside the 30, 25, not risk the return and, who knows, maybe we hit a dead spot and we come up with something.’

“So we just kept watching it, kept watching it, and the guy kept cheating and cheating. And after we scored, we thought that was a good opportunity to give it a shot.”

It was — and the Deacons got the ball right back, scored to re-establish their early 14-point lead and never looked back.

3. Wake had 12 penalties for 119 yards — three more infractions and 58 yards more than the Deacons had in all three of their previous games combined. Clawson’s teams are normally disciplined: In 39 games the past three seasons, Wake Forest has averaged just 4.6 penalties for 39.8 yards per game.

“You know, games are never perfect,” Clawson said. “There’s a lot of things to clean up. The penalties were a problem. I don’t know where that came from.”

Clawson admitted he was disappointed with the penalties and that they could have cost the Deacons the game, but added, “Heck, we’ve had some games that were penalty-free and we lose, so I’ll take the trade-off.”

Number to know

35, 98, 99 — The numbers worn by the three players Virginia used under center in the game — not your normal digits for quarterbacks. With Cavaliers starter Brennan Armstrong unable to play after suffering a concussion against NC State, UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall had to get creative — and he did.

Lindell Stone (No. 35) served as the traditional quarterback, going 24 of 42 for 193 yards and two interceptions, but Keytaon Thompson (99) and Iraken Armstead (98) both played as well, albeit in more of a Wildcat role. Thompson had 71 yards on 10 carries but never threw the ball, while Armstead was 1 of 3 for nine yards and rushed six times for 46 yards and a touchdown.

“They just really they had us scrambling in the first half,” Clawson said of all the formations and personnel the Cavaliers used. “And then I thought our defensive staff really made some good adjustments. We started defending 98 in the backfield a little bit different. And, you know, we just kind of settled down a little bit.”

Player of the Game

Sam Hartman, Wake Forest quarterback — While Walker’s run was the play of the game, Hartman connected on several long throws that set the tone for the game. He finished with 309 yards on 16-of-27 passing, connecting with A.T. Perry for a 40-yard score just 1:52 into the game.

His 49-yard strike to Jaquarii Roberson (7 receptions for 126 yards) set up the first of Walker’s three touchdowns and was the second of six completions of 30 or more yards for Hartman.

They said it

“We’ve got seven more ACC games ahead of us. We play four or five more ranked teams. So we’re going to have to keep getting better.”

— Dave Clawson, Wake Forest coach

Critical thinking

While Wake Forest’s offense, defense and special teams all made big plays and performed well in stretches, there’s still a level of consistency the Deacons need to reach to have a winning record this season.

As Clawson mentioned, the Demon Deacons have a rough schedule the rest of the way, including four games against currently ranked teams. While all but one (at UNC on Nov. 14) is at Truist Field, home games against Virginia Tech, Miami and Notre Dame won’t be a walk in the park — especially without a normal home-field advantage. The challenge starts next week with a visit from the Hokies.