Kickoff at BB&T was at 7:35 p.m. Saturday. There were clear skies, it was 70 degrees, there was little wind and the sounds and smells of the Dixie Classic wafted in the air.
Coach Dave Clawson put it best:
“We didn’t show up until about 8:15.”
That estimate is just about correct — it was 8:22 when Louisville scored its fourth touchdown and previously unbeaten Wake Forest found itself in a three-touchdown hole. In the first five games of the season, the largest deficit the Deacons faced was four (points, not touchdowns).
The Deacons rallied and this ACC game wound up with a basketball-esque score at 62-59, and nearly made those in the crowd of 24,434 who left early re-evaluate their decision-making processes, but the story was the start of the game — because Louisville was awarded an onside kick recovery with 1:10 left.
Wake Forest waltzed into this game unfocused and perhaps — despite a revamped approach — too well-rested.
“People don’t understand, this league, if you don’t show up to play — it’s not like, no matter who you’re playing against, you will lose,” senior linebacker Justin Strnad said.
Clawson’s record at Wake Forest after an off week moved to 0-7, and while one week doesn’t make or break a season, it clearly bothered him that such changes were made to the Deacons’ schedule during the off week and the result was the same.
“We talked about it as a team that we haven’t played well out of bye weeks, we’re changing the bye schedule,” Clawson said, “we’re getting more of a workload and we just talked about being ready to play at 7:30, being at 7:30, at kickoff, be into the game, be ready to play, be ready to go, no lull.”
The lull came in the form of three turnovers by a team that had committed four in the entire season before Saturday night. It came in the form of seven penalties by a team that had committed 16 for the season.
It came in the form of a defense that had a stated goal of not allowing passes over its head giving up 17.3 yards per completion.
“And that’s my fault. My job is to get the team ready to play and we certainly didn’t come ready to play,” Clawson said. “We were flat, we weren’t focused, we weren’t taking care of the football.”
The Deacons, obviously, didn’t remain absent for the entire game. Jamie Newman passed for 251 yards and three touchdowns to Sage Surratt, and then when it was deemed that Newman was a little too shaken up with a left shoulder injury, Sam Hartman entered and scored three touchdowns in the game’s final five minutes.
The Deacons showed, in case anybody forgot, they have two quarterbacks who can play high-level football in the ACC.
Wake Forest showed it has plenty of fight too, as Surratt said afterward. That probably didn’t need to be proved further, but it was encouraging nonetheless.
The Deacons just didn’t have it for the entire game, and that’s where frustration laid afterward.
“Couldn’t give you a definitive answer on that. I think it was, you know, some things in practice — we messed up on,” Surratt said when asked why the Deacons weren’t up for this game when it started. “I think everybody just has to be ready for the game at all times, every week.
“You have to be ready every week, that’s what makes great football teams elite. We have to be ready every week and have the same mentality every week if we want to win.”
It’s not like a lot changed in the past two weeks. Wake Forest played three down-to-the-wire games in its five-game winning streak to begin the season — it wasn’t invincible and wasn’t blowing teams out.
But during that five-game stretch, Wake Forest got off to fast starts each time. The Deacons scored first in every game and in the last four games held at least a two-score lead before yielding points.
There were plenty of things that happened in a four-hour span Saturday night that had not happened in Wake Forest’s first five games, and the aspect of a sauntering start stands out as the most important one.
“We’re going to keep looking forward, keep doing better. We’ve just gotta do better in practice,” sophomore safety Nasir Greer said. “Our practice this week was just sluggish, I felt like. We’ve just gotta do better Tuesday morning.
“That’s when it starts this week, for us.”
Tuesday morning’s practice will start around 8 a.m.
Smart money would be on the Deacons showing up before then.