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Ever-focused Wake Forest heads to the ACC championship game with more to prove
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Ever-focused Wake Forest heads to the ACC championship game with more to prove

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When Dave Clawson finally walked into his post-game news conference, he had a guest with him.

The Wake Forest football coach, fresh off the Deacons’ 10th victory of the season, offered an introduction as soon as he sat down.

“Say hello to our new friend,” Clawson said as he held the ACC’s Atlantic Division trophy up to the camera. Moments earlier, he had hoisted it high in a rowdy visiting locker room.

The Deacons did it.

A season that started with promise took its lumps, but didn’t falter. They beat Boston College 41-10, to clinch a trip to the ACC championship game next week against Pitt, the Coastal Division winner. The players celebrated briefly when the game ended, but snapped back into their laser focus right after.

“We’re obviously really excited about this one, but we all know what the next one means,” said linebacker Luke Masterson.

“The job’s not done,” added Rondell Bothroyd, echoing a sentiment he shared in a sideline interview after the game.

The fact of the matter is, this team continues to make a case as the best the school has ever had. Saturday clinched only the second double-digit win season in the program’s history. It also marked the team’s second trip to the ACC championship game. The school has two conference titles — in 1970 and in 2006, the latter having served as the program’s high watermark.

Sam Hartman, the team’s starting quarterback,chalked up four total touchdowns with 253 yards passing and 51 more rushing against the Eagles. He did, for only a second, acknowledge the feeling of the achievement before he put his business-suit persona back on.

“It was a cool moment to share it with our fans, the people who traveled or the people who are local here in Boston,” Hartman said. “... This was a special moment for the guys, and for Wake Forest and the whole university and everyone who’s behind us all here.”

After losing two of their past three, which featured eight total turnovers, the Deacons recovered and responded. Wake Forest’s lone turnover came late in the second quarter on a fluky play in which A.T. Perry fell in the end zone, giving Boston College an easy interception.

The defense, which has struggled against the run, forced three turnovers of their own, two interceptions and a fumble. More notably, the Deacons shook off the struggles that have plagued their run defense, holding a flu-stricken Boston College to 163 yards rushing and only 182 total. Ten Eagles players were out sick for the game.

“When we don’t play well on defense, a lot of it comes down to not tackling well,” Masterson said. “And obviously, I think we tackled better today so things ended up a little better for us.”

“Good to Great” has been the go-to phrase Clawson has pointed to with his players. Within the last month, that on-field effort has been matched by off-the-field moves to convey more investment.

On Oct. 29, the school announced a $20-million donation toward the McCreary Football Complex, provided by its namesake, Wake Forest graduate Bob McCreary. The last home game against N.C. State, a 45-42 victory on Nov. 13, was a sellout. Students have shown up in droves all season.

Friday featured another significant step with the athletics department’s announcement of a contract extension for Clawson.

Clawson signed a new deal with the school in 2019, but Athletics Director John Currie said he engaged another commitment conversation with Clawson during the Deacons’ off week this season. Terms of the new contract weren’t disclosed by the school.

“I think that it’s evident that Dave Clawson is an elite coach,” Currie said on Saturday morning. “I believe he’s building an elite football program at Wake Forest. And I think that his contract and the ability to support him with great staff is augmented.”

Since that initial conversation, Clawson’s name had since surfaced in the national media as a potential candidate for the opening at Virginia Tech. The Deacons went from 6-0 then to contending for a conference championship now. Clawson said after the game that he didn’t initially want to sign anything during the season as to not become a distraction. But as the coaching carousel chatter continued to increase, he felt the time was right to end it by recommitting again to the program with which he’s spent the past eight years.

“I just wanted our players to know before a critical game that I wasn’t I wasn’t going to go anywhere else; that I was going to be at Wake Forest,” Clawson said.

Currie said that Clawson has always indicated his love for coaching and working at Wake Forest. The shifting landscape in college football also added more incentive to line up an even longer agreement with Clawson.

“We’ve had incredible support for our football program for a number of years,” Currie said. “Certainly this year has shown the return on the investment so to speak, with the great wins, a great home atmosphere with sold-out games, all those things are really validating to the people who’ve invested so much in the program, both individual contributors of university, our board.

“... When you have things going in the right direction, you want to make sure that you’ve done everything you can to continue to provide that stability and support going forward.”

Wake Forest has the conference championship game and, of course, a bowl game to go. The focus that’s been apparent all season had already started snapping back into place for the Deacons’ football coach too, even as he held the divisional trophy in his hand.

“We’re thrilled to be the Atlantic Division champions,” Clawson said, just after setting the trophy down to his left. “But again, we’ve got a game next week. And our goal was to be the ACC champions. So we’re going to have obviously, a huge game against an excellent Pittsburgh football team.”

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@ByEthanJoyce

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