Three-Point Stance: Wake Forest survives to claim Military Bowl title
Dave Clawson delivered. Three years into a major rebuilding project, the former Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green head coach led Wake Forest, a program that had not won a bowl game since 2008, to a Military Bowl title with a 34-26 win over No. 24 Temple.
It is the first time the school has ever beaten a ranked opponent in a bowl game.
The win gives Wake Forest its first single-season winning record this decade.
John Wolford’s injury undercut the offense’s most prolific day of the season
Health-related misfortune struck Wake Forest’s quarterback depth again. In Week 3, the team lost starting quarterback Kendall Hinton for the season due to a knee injury. In the Military Bowl, an awkward second-half fall left John Wolford, Hinton’s replacement, with a neck strain and sitting on the sideline watching Wake Forest’s commanding lead begin to evaporate. The injury pushed freshman Kyle Kearns — boasting just 25 career pass attempts — into action, and the offense promptly stalled.
The offense posted just three points after halftime — and even that was due to a long kickoff return. With time running down, the Demon Deacons were forced into familiar territory: leaning on All-ACC kicker Mike Weaver and their defense for a last-minute stop to escape with the trophy. They came through.
The first half offered zero hints of slowing down for the Demon Deacons’ offense, which dominated one of the nation’s top-rated defenses. Wake Forest scored 31 points by halftime, more than it scored in any game against an ACC opponent all season. Wolford & Co. had the Owls on their heels with an uptempo offense that kept marching down the field with a flurry of read-option plays. One day after the conference’s second-worst offense (Boston College) exploded in the opening 30 minutes only to weather a storm late, the same exact storyline followed the ACC’s lowest-scoring team.
In the context of returning starters, Wake Forest promises to be much better than a bottom-10 scoring offense in 2017.
Clawson’s coaching staff should be able to choose from experienced quarterbacks in Wolford and Hinton. Underclassmen Matt Colburn and Cade Carney both eclipsed the 500-yard mark at running back and stood out against Temple. Every skill position player that caught a pass this season returns, highlighted by tight end Cam Serigne, who finished his junior year with a productive evening. The offensive line returns three starters. Expect an improved, if only marginally, Wake Forest attack next year.
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Can Wake Forest’s defense keep taking steps forward despite personnel losses?
The Demon Deacons journey from three-win afterthought to Military Bowl champs is a tale of defensive growth. As the offense stagnated year after year, the defense jumped from 60th to 43rd to 21st nationally in scoring. In all three seasons under Clawson, Wake Forest has finished top-40 in efficiency, according to the S&P+ model. It is a program built around winning low-scoring affairs — and now changes are coming.
The unit’s best player, senior linebacker and captain Marquel Lee, is gone. Same goes for seniors Josh Banks and Thomas Brown in the front seven and starting defensive backs Brad Watson and Ryan Janvion. There’s also the chance that top pass rusher Duke Ejiofor tests the draft waters. If Ejoifor indeed leaves, that totals 46 combined tackles for loss in the starting front seven alone.
Regardless, the Demon Deacons will have holes to fill.
Barring Wake’s ability to repeat its first-half offensive proficiency against Temple on a more consistent basis, Clawson will need to continue developing talent to replace his standouts. The Demon Deacons have survived the losses of top playmakers before — 2015 first-round draft pick and star corner Kevin Johnson, for starters — and that will once again be put to the test this offseason, especially in the linebacking corps.
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The Demon Deacons slammed doors when necessary
Temple gained more total yards and held a slight edge in time of possession and neither team won the turnover battle. Owls senior quarterback Phillip Walker finished with 396 yards and two scores, typically a bad combination for Wake.
Yet Ejiofor & Co. were able to create enough negative plays and be especially Scrooge-like on third-down attempts to walk away with a win. Temple converted just two of its 14 third- and fourth-down attempts, bogged down by an offense that managed to lose 20 yards on the ground (including sacks) over the course of 60 minutes.
The Demon Deacons wrapped up the season allowing opponents to convert on just 34.1 percent of third-down attempts, a top-20 ranking nationally.