A deft defensive effort by the Deacs' defense delivers a 37-17 season opening win over Elon
Preview: Elon Phoenix (8-4, 6-2 in the CAA) vs Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-5, 3-5 in the ACC).
It's August 31st. It's our birthday. And how are we celebrating? We're starting our 5th year of covering the Wake Forest Demon Deacons as college football is underway!
Coming off an 8-5 season along with their 7th consecutive bowl game appearance (and win in the 2022 Gasparilla Bowl), Head Coach Dave Clawson (entering his 10th season at Wake) and the Deacs look to get off to a fast and positive start. Given changes in the season structure, including an ACC which no longer has divisions, it means the top 2 teams overall earn the right to play in Charlotte for the conference championship.
On offense, with key losses including top wideout AT Perry (now with the New Orleans Saints), wideout Donavon Greene (due to injury), and the ACC's all-time leader in touchdown passes (Sam Hartman), the team is relying on its evolving depth and steady player development to fuel an offense which averaged 36.1 points per game (in 2022). Mitch Griffis, who excelled in his lone start in 2022 (click HERE for the recap), takes the reigns of the offense. With standouts on offense including (but not limited to) running back Justice Ellison (707 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per carry, and 6 touchdowns), Jahmal Banks (636 receiving yards, 15.1 yards per reception, and 9 touchdowns), and Taylor Morin (575 receiving yards, 12.2 yards per reception, and 9 touchdowns), the team expects to provide constant pressure on opposing defenses.
On defense, Wake looks to game-changers including (but not limited to) safety Malik Mustapha (58 tackles with 3.5 sacks), defensive lineman Jasheen Davis (33 tackles with 7 sacks), along with returning leading tackler Chase Jones (the linebacker's 74 tackles is only eclipsed by departed linebacker Ryan Smenda, Jr's 117 tackles) to build upon their performance in Brad Lambert's defense. In improving on their points allowed per game (28.3) and forced turnovers (only 16 for the 2022 season), they can position themselves to be a contender for the conference title.
Elon comes in with high aspirations as well.
Listed starting quarterback Matthew Downing (who beat out last year's #2 quarterback Justin Allen) is asked to replace last year's starter, Matthew McKay (as replacing his 2690 passing yards along with a 21/4 touchdown to interception ratio is a tall order). Supported by last year's leading rusher, Jalen Hampton (1062 rushing yards, 4.6 YPC, and 10 touchdowns) along with last year's 3rd leading receiver, Chandler Brayboy (461 receiving yards, 16.5 YPC, and 3 touchdowns), they'll look to challenge a Wake Forest defense which allowed 269.7 yards per game (along with improving on last year's 25.8 points per game). On defense, the Phoenix allow a solid 21.3 points per game (in 2022). Defensive ends Marvin Pearson and Cazeem Moore are being counted on to disrupt Wake's slow mesh offense (as last year's defense produces 20 sacks). With a passing defense which allows 209.3 yards per game in 2022, returning defensive backs Antonio White (27 tackles in 2022) and Jaidyn Dennis (26 tackles) are asked to be up to the challenge of slowing down one of the ACC's top offenses over the past 3 seasons.
Game recap: The Deacs deliver with a sound showing on defense to start the season.
Wake would win the toss but defer to the 2nd half to start with the ball.
And on cue, on the game's second series, they would get the scoring started. Mitch Griffis would connect with a wide-open Wesley Grimes for an 18-yard touchdown pass (11:36 in the 1st quarter) to give the Deacs an early 7-0 lead; just prior to the end of the 1st quarter, Matthew Dennis would deliver a 34-yard field goal to give them a double-digit lead (10-0).
Early in the 2nd quarter, Wake would showcase their quick strike attack, as Jahmal Banks' route beats the Elon secondary rotation/double-team to expand the lead to 17-0 on a 33-yard touchdown reception (14:26 in the 2nd quarter). To close out the 2nd quarter and 1st half, the Wake defense would thwart a rare visit to the red zone by the Elon offense thanks to Demarcus Rankin's interception.
Feeding off the energy provided by the defense, Wake's offense delivers as Cameron Hite's highlight reel run and catch for a 69-yard touchdown gives the Deacs a 24-0 halftime lead.
Wake opens the 2nd half/3rd quarter with a scoring drive. Matthew Dennis' 29-yard field goal gives them a 27-0 lead (10:33 left in the 3rd quarter).
Elon would finally get on the scoreboard at 8:33 mark of the 3rd quarter. Jalen Hampton's misdirection leads him to some wide-open space, resulting in a 49-yard touchdown run to make it a 27-7 game.
Then the Phoenix would start to rise.
Elon's Caleb Curtain would pick off a pass from Mitch Griffis and return it for a touchdown, getting them back into the game (27-14).
Wake's Ke'Shawn Williams would return the ensuing kickoff to midfield, giving the offense outstanding field position. The Deacs would score as Matthew Dennis contributes a 29-yard field goal to extend the lead to 30-14.
The Wake defense would come up with their second forced turnover of the game at the 6:44 mark of the 4th quarter. An interception by Dashawn Jones comes at a critical moment as Elon focuses on making a push to get back in the game.
Demond Claiborne would rumble for a 4-yard touchdown run to give Wake a 37-14 lead with 4:09 left in the 4th quarter.
A late field goal by Elon's Jack Berkowitz (with 1 second left in the game) would close out the game, resulting in a season-opening 37-17 win for Wake.
Post-game: Wake's defense stands out as they focus on key areas leading into their next game
While Elon wins the time of possession battle (31:50 to 28:09), with the exception of the touchdown run by Jalen Hampton, Wake's defense has a solid effort. In allowing 251 total yards, the team's front 7 holds Elon to under 4 yards per carry (3.7) along with generating pressure (3 sacks) and forcing 2 turnovers (and having a +1 turnover ratio). Malik Mustapha (9 tackles), along with defensive backs DaShawn Jones and Demarcus Rankin (1 interception apiece) help set a winning tone. Their efforts limit quarterback Justin Allen (18 for 29 with 128 passing yards and 2 interceptions) and the passing game (Jordan Bonner leads the Phoenix with 7 receptions, but only has 58 yards, averaging 8.3 yards per reception). Jalen Hampton's 18 carries for 89 yards (averaging 5.1 yards per carry) is buttressed by his touchdown run.
Mitch Griffis leads the Wake passing game with a 329-yard effort (19 for 30) with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. Jahmal Banks (6 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown), Cameron Hite (4 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown), Wesley Grimes (3 receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown), and the late effort by Demond Claiborne (13 carries for 70 yards and a rushing touchdown) are integral to the Deacs' offensive output.
During postgame, head coach Dave Clawson fields our question on the effort of the front 7, including generating improved pressure and forcing turnovers (you may watch his response below):
Defensive back DaShawn Jones conducts his postgame interview, including fielding our question centering on the secondary's execution of the game plan and limiting Elon to less than 130 passing yards for the game (you may view the full interview here):
Wake quarterback Mitch Griffis takes our question during postgame as he reflects on positive takeaways from the game, as well as areas to focus on improving leading into next week's game (September 9, 2023 at Allegacy Stadium vs Vanderbilt/11am EST kickoff):
As Wake (1-0, 0-0 in the ACC) prepares for their late morning home tilt against Vanderbilt (1-0, 0-0 in the SEC), Elon (0-1, 0-0 in the CAA) prepares for a road game against the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs (September 9, 2023 at 6pm EST).
Notes: All video is recorded by Andrew Snorton. You may visit the 2023 playlist for Wake Forest football (click HERE) to watch all game clips and interviews (short and full version).
The first photo grid is recorded by Andrew Snorton. The top row (left to right) includes the football team and cheerleaders entering the stadium, and the Class of 2027 on field during pre-game. The middle row captures more pregame and the offense (led by quarterback Mitch Griffis) during 1st half play. The bottom row includes the Wake defense, Taylor Morin (punt returning), and the offense celebrating with Jahmal Banks after his touchdown reception.
The second photo grid is recorded and credited to Devon Carson of DC Photography 336. The top row (left to right) includes pre-game sights and scenes. The middle row provides closeups of the offensive and defensive lines for Wake engaging with Elon. The bottom row includes quarterback Mitch Griffis and the offense at work (as they score 37 points in their season opening win).