Deacons dominant in beatdown of Florida State

Wake Forest receiver A.T. Perry celebrates after a big gain during Saturday’s win against Florida State at Truist Field (P.J. Ward/North State Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM — Florida State football isn’t what it used to be. But then, neither is Wake Forest.

The reality of those changing roles were on full display at Truist Field on Saturday.

The surging Deacons dominated every phase of the game — rolling up 484 yards of total offense, forcing six turnovers and pitching a shutout in the second half — to produce a surgical 35-14 beatdown of the once powerful Seminoles.

The victory improved coach Dave Clawson’s team to 3-0 for the fourth time in the last six seasons and firmly established itself as the early frontrunner to challenge Clemson’s dominance in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

“We played our butts off today,” said redshirt senior defensive tackle Miles Fox, who contributed a sack and two tackles for loss to a defensive effort that held FSU to fewer than 100 yards rushing and limited the Seminoles to just one conversion on seven third- and fourth-down situations.

“It was a really big game. Going into the week, (quarterback Sam Hartman) stood in front of the team and let everybody know how big a game it was and everybody brought their ‘A’ game. We had a great week of practice and we’re excited about how it turned out.”

Things didn’t exactly get off to a smooth start for Wake, though,

 On the fourth play of the game, Hartman had a pass tipped into the air and intercepted by the Seminoles’ Sidney Williams. Two plays later, though, FSU returned the favor by fumbling the ball right back. 

Hartman converted the turnover into points by hitting wide receiver A.T. Perry in stride for a 49-yard touchdown down the near sideline. And the Deacons (3-0, 1-0 ACC) were off and running.

It still took a little time before they hit full stride. One drive stalled when receiver Jaquarii Roberson fumbled while battling for extra yardage at the end of a long gain and several others were made more difficult by seven first half penalties.

But those were just minor hiccups on the way to a commanding performance in Wake’s first real test of the new season.

Four different players scored the Deacons’  four touchdowns — one each on the ground from Christian Beal-Smith and freshman Justice Ellison and Hartman passes to A.T. Perry and Donald Stewart — while kicker Nick Sciba hit a pair of field goals to extend his streak to 16 straight.

“We knew the level of competition was going to step up,” said Clawson, whose team beat overmatched Old Dominion and Norfolk State in its first two games. “We knew we would have to play a fourth quarter game.

“The offense did a great job of controlling the clock. We controlled the line of scrimmage, we ran the ball really well. I thought Sam was really efficient again. Defensively, just one of our best efforts. I thought it was a really good team effort. We’re going to need more of this as we move forward.” 

 Hartman was 22 of 31 for 259 yards and the two scores. He spread the ball around to eight receivers, including Perry — who led the way with career-high totals of seven catches for 155 yards. The passing game was complemented by a rushing attack that churned out 225 yards, 95 of which came on 19 carries by Beal-Smith.

As potent as the offense was, however, it was the defense that set the tone and served notice that the Deacons are a team to be reckoned with in what is shaping up to be the most wide-open ACC in recent memory.

“I’d say the defense won this game for us,” Hartman said. “They have so many turnovers and so many key moments — fourth down stops, a fumble at the goal line. That completely changed the game. It’s been awesome because there’s been so much competition with how much better our team has gotten over these years.”

Although Wake already turned a 27-14 halftime lead into a three-touchdown advantage with an epic 14-play, 90-yard drive on its opening possession of the second half, it took two big defensive stops to finally put FSU away.

The first came late in the third quarter when defensive end Rondell Bothroyd pulled down Seminoles quarterback McKenzie Milton from behind on a fourth-and-two play from the Deacons 11.

FSU (0-3, 0-1) got even closer to scoring on its next possession. But as Milton attempted a quarterback sneak from the 1, linebacker D.J. Taylor stripped the ball and teammate Luiji Vilain fell on it in the end zone for the touchback that effectively broke the Seminoles’ spirit.

“That was huge,” Fox said. “That really changed the momentum.”

Villain also had a forced fumble. Caelen Carson, Traveon Redd and Nasir Greer had the Deacons’ three interceptions. Redd also have a team-leading five tackles and a half sack.