WINSTON-SALEM Senior nose guard Nikita Whitlock has proclaimed the Wake Forest defense to be the best in the nation.
Come Saturday at Clemson, the Deacons will have a chance to prove it.
One of Whitlock’s teammates, outside linebacker Justin Jackson, knows it will be a tall order against a third-ranked Tigers’ team averaging 38.7 points a game. The Deacons rank No. 24 in the nation in scoring defense, with 15.8 points a game allowed.
“I guess this is the Saturday,” said Jackson, asked when the defense will truly show its mettle. “We have a challenge in Clemson because, as we all know, they have some big playmakers in Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins.
“So if we’re able to hold them, it will show we’re one of the top defenses in the nation.”
Regardless of how primed and ready the Deacons will be, Coach Jim Grobe said that the defense is going to need all the help it can get from quarterback Tanner Price, flanker Michael Campanaro and the rest of the offense, which stumbled out of the gates and never really hit stride until the final 20 minutes of last Saturday’s 25-11 victory at Army.
“Hopefully our offense will play a little better,” Grobe said. “I can’t imagine how well we could have played defensively early if our offense had done anything.
“At Clemson, you can’t play this football team right now and play great on defense and win or play great on offense and win. You’ve got to have a team effort, and that includes special teams. This is a game where if you just play good on one side of the ball, you’re not going to get it done. You’ve got to have a team effort.”
The Deacons’ health doesn’t seem to be as bad as it looked at the end of a physical battle at Army, where cornerback Merrill Noel, defensive end Kristopher Redding and tight end Spencer Bishop all needed treatment during the game. Grobe said Tuesday he expects everyone to be available Saturday.
Noel injured a foot and Redding and Bishop suffered knee injuries.
“I think we’re in a position that we’ll have them all ready to go by Saturday,” Grobe said. “We really won’t know until after Thursday and probably won’t say anything about it until after Thursday’s practice. But I would guess that everybody is going to be OK.
“We just played such a physical game. There’s not one kid on our defense, especially, that doesn’t have something wrong with him – sore knee, ankle, shoulder. Something is going on with everybody right now. That was a gut check the other day.”
The stress facing the Deacons was as much mental as physical. At 1-2 going into the Army game, there was universal acknowledgment by coaches and players that they could ill afford a third straight loss.
The trip to Clemson, where Wake Forest hasn’t won since 1998, is never easy. It’s harder at 1-3 than at 2-2.
“I was concerned because there was so much pressure on our guys,” Grobe said. “It wasn’t a secret. We couldn’t go to Death Valley at 1-3.
“We feel pretty good about coming out, and certainly relieved. Somebody said, ‘What was the feeling in the locker room?’ And I said, ‘Probably as much relief as anything else, just because how badly we needed a win.’”
To upset the Tigers, the Deacons will need to carry over the momentum they built in the running game. After being held to 70 yards rushing in a 24-10 loss at Boston College and a 21-19 home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, Wake Forest broke loose for 228 rushing yards at Army.
Josh Harris, who had only 55 yards on 25 carries in the first three games, broke loose for 96 yards on 19 carries.
“It was just kind of good to see both groups coming together,” Grobe said. “I thought the offensive line blocked better and the backs ran better.
“It’s nice to see Josh kind of get going in the second half, to see him finish. And he had a handful of really tough runs up inside where there wasn’t a whole lot, and he got three or four yards.”
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