|Posted on November 10, 2017 at 11:55 PM|
Article by Dan Tortora
Since becoming the head coach of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in 2014, head coach Dave Clawson has faced the Syracuse Orange in every season, going up against the Orange for two seasons when they were led by former head coach Scott Shafer and one season under Dino Babers.
The Deacons lost 30-7 to the Orange in 2014 at home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and were on the wrong side of 30-17 in Syracuse, New York, in 2015.
But, the first time that the two former Bowling Green State Falcons' head coaches faced off inside the ACC, Clawson got the better of Babers in Winston-Salem, by a score of 28-9 in 2016.
Syracuse has already matched their wins from 2016 (4) with three games to play, with one of their wins this season coming against the reigning national champion, the Clemson Tigers.
"I mean, their improvement is across the board," said Clawson in our conversation. "I think when everyone talks about Syracuse, the first thing that comes up is the offense and the speed of it. But they're running the ball a lot better."
The Orange are averaging 158.4 rushing yards per game through nine games this season. Syracuse's rushing attack is three-headed this season, led by junior quarterback Eric Dungey, who is averaging 66 rushing yards per game, followed by junior running back Dontae Strickland with 47 rushing yards per game and then sophomore running back Moe Neal with 24 yards per game.
All 13 of Syracuse's rushing touchdowns have come among these three student-athletes, Dungey with nine, Strickland with three, and Neal gaining his first this season when the Orange traveled to Miami, Florida, to face the Hurricanes on October 21st.
"I think their offensive line is improved," Clawson went on to say. In 12 games last season, Syracuse's offensive line allowed 38 sacks. With three games to play, the Orange offensive line has given up 28 sacks.
"The quarterback has always been a good player and a competitor," Clawson expressed. "Now he's even more comfortable with the system. He gets rid of the football so quickly. He knows exactly where to go with it."
Dungey has shared the ball with numerous players, with senior wide receivers Steve Ishmael and Erv Philips getting the majority of the looks from the junior signal-caller.
"Ishmael and Philips are probably as good or dynamic as any 1-2 combination that you see," Clawson offered. The Syracuse tandem is in the top three in the nation in total receptions this season, Ishmael second nationally with 78 receptions and Philips third in the nation with 73 receptions, trailing only Trey Quinn of the SMU Mustangs, who has 90 receptions through nine games.
"They're putting up huge numbers. The ball is thrown in tight spaces."
Switching his focus to the Orange defense, Clawson shared, "I think their defense has really, really improved. They've taken a major step on defense. Their front is better. Their linebacking crew is experienced: [Parris] Bennett, [Zaire] Franklin, and [Jonathan] Thomas. I think they're improved in the secondary."
"Across the board, when you watch them, they're better in every single way. You don't beat Clemson or compete with Florida State or Miami unless you're across the board. They have been in so many close games, and they've won some. Like us, they've had some near misses."
The Demon Deacons were tied at home with the Florida State Seminoles at 19 apiece until the Seminoles scored the separating touchdown with 53 seconds left in the contest. Wake Forest came back from down 28-0 against Clemson on the road to make a late push, cutting their deficit in half at 28-14, but time ran out. They hung with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on the road in South Bend, Indiana, in a high-scoring match-up, putting up 37 points, the most points the Fighting Irish have allowed through the first nine games this season.
Syracuse played themselves into fourth-quarter opportunities in all four of their road games against the LSU Tigers, N.C. State Wolfpack, Miami Hurricanes, and Florida State Seminoles, but did not come away with a single win amongst these four games.
Looking back to his squad, Clawson stated, "We're better. I think we're certainly a lot more competitive against the better teams in our schedule. We're not winning and finding ways to win as many of those games as we'd like, but we're in them. Some of these games we haven't been in in the past. We're not happy to be in them, we need to figure out ways to win them."
"I think that is going to be a great challenge this week," Clawson added. "This league, this conference, probably top to bottom, is as competitive as it's ever been. Syracuse is a team like us that's trying to fight and work its way up, compete with elite teams, beat elite teams. I think we're in very similar spots."
Speaking of being in similar spots, Wake Forest in one win away from becoming bowl eligible, coming into the Carrier Dome with a 5-4 record. They have three games left and need to win at least one of them. Syracuse is two wins away from bowl eligibility at 4-5 overall, with three games to play.