No. 17 Wake Forest will have a decided advantage in preparation time when it hosts Rutgers in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Friday in Jacksonville. But that doesn’t mean the Demon Deacons can take for granted the Scarlet Knights, who enter the postseason as the only team in the 42 bowls with a losing record.
Wake Forest was expecting to play No. 23 Texas A&M in the bowl game, but the Aggies pulled out of the contest on Dec. 22 because of a combination of season-ending injuries and COVID within the program. So, Gator Bowl officials chose Rutgers, which had the highest APR score among the nation’s teams with 5-7 records, to fill the spot on relatively short notice.
The Demon Deacons (10-3) head to the bowl game on the heels of a 45-21 loss to Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Charlotte and have dropped three of their past five games after beginning the season 8-0.
Six of Wake Forest’s wins this season – and all three of its losses – came against teams that are playing in bowl games. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, who garnered ACC Coach of the Year honors for his work this season, knew he had the makings of a great team.
“I just really felt this year we had a chance to not just be good, but to be really good,” Clawson said. “I saw it after going through COVID last year with some of the leadership I saw emerge, some of the progress the younger players made, and the way we executed during spring practice.”
The Demon Deacons were second in the ACC with 41.2 points scored per game and in touchdowns (68). The high-powered Demon Deacon offense was spearheaded by its passing attack, led by redshirt sophomore dual-threat quarterback Sam Hartman.
Hartman threw for 36 touchdowns, a 58.8 completion percentage and an efficiency rating of 148.5. He also had 11 rushing touchdowns and was selected second team All-ACC.
Wake Forest is making its program record sixth-straight bowl trip, the third-longest active bowl streak in the ACC and its 16th all-time bowl appearance overall. It will be the second time the Demon Deacons have played in the Gator Bowl, having participated in the inaugural game in 1946.
The Scarlet Knights haven’t played since losing to Maryland 40-16 at home on Nov. 27, their third defeat in their final four games, all by at least 24 points. They didn’t defeat a bowl-eligible team this year and lost to one squad that didn’t qualify for a bowl game.
Rutgers is ranked 113th in the nation in points per game (20.3), 114th in passing yards per game (172.8) and 86th in rushing (141 per contest). The Scarlet Knights’ defense is better, allowing 24.6 points per game, (51st) in the country, 162.7 rushing yards (85th) and 229.2 passing yards (66th).
Most of Rutgers’ players had gone home for the holidays before A&M pulled out of the Gator Bowl and the rumors began to swirl about the Scarlet Knights status as the first go-to replacement. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano and his staff began preparations for facing Wake Forest right after the Aggies decided not to play so they were ready to go when Rutgers had its first bowl practice on Dec. 26.
“With the time we have, we’re not going to try to reinvent the wheel,” Schiano explained. “We’re going to go out and play with great energy and great excitement and see where the chips fall. Our guys will play with great effort and when you do that, you give yourself a chance.”
The Gator Bowl will be, by far, the highest-profile bowl game in which Rutgers has ever competed.
Even in 2006, when the Scarlet Knights were ranked No.13 in the nation after the last game of its regular season, Rutgers was still slotted into the Texas Bowl against unranked Kansas State. The Scarlet Knights went on to win that game, finishing the season at 12-2 and ranked 12th by the Associated Press.
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