WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Maybe this is what Clemson's high-flying offense needs to get clicking again: a matchup with the Atlantic Coast Conference team it beats most often.
The 14th-ranked Tigers (6-1, 3-1) are coming off a game in which they had season lows in every meaningful offensive stat but the final score. They're headed to Wake Forest on Thursday night looking to get back to their norms of big yards and big points.
The league's best passing offense was held to 160 yards through the air and also finished with 135 yards rushing and 295 total yards in a 38-17 win over Virginia Tech. Those numbers would be considered mediocre at best for most teams, and a definite cause for concern for a Tigers team that averages 493 total yards behind big-play threats Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins.
"If you don't play well and are still able to win a ballgame, that's a good day," Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "But for us to achieve our goals we have set here, we have to play better than that. ... I think our (offensive) guys might have been signing too many autographs. We had to put the Sharpies up this week."
They hope to get well against Wake Forest (4-3, 2-3). Clemson has beaten the Demon Deacons 59 times — only South Carolina (65) has more losses to the Tigers — and has won three straight and five of six in the series.
Wake Forest doesn't expect Clemson's offensive struggles to continue, not with so many playmakers throughout the depth chart. Boyd threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns and Andre Ellington rushed for 98 yards and two scores against his team last year, but the Tigers needed a last-second field goal to avoid overtime and claim a 31-28 win.
"If you miss an assignment, they will make you pay for it and they probably will score because they've done that all year," linebacker Riley Haynes said. "People get out of their gaps, Andre Ellington's going to take it to the house. If you miss a coverage, Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins is going to find it and they're going to score and they're going to make you pay. ... They do a couple things that mess with you mentally a little bit, so it's huge to be mentally sound and prevent the big plays as much as you can to have a chance at slowing them down."
At least the Demon Deacons will have a big-play threat of his own in their lineup: receiver Michael Campanaro is expected to play after missing two games with a broken right hand. Campanaro, who had an ACC-best 38 catches when he was hurt Sept. 29 against Duke, returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown last year against the Tigers.
His return should help a Wake Forest offense that is coming off a subpar performance of its own. In a 16-10 win at Virginia, the Demon Deacons gained just 213 total yards — their lowest total in an ACC victory since 1966. And it certainly can't hurt quarterback Tanner Price, a normally reliable passer who completed just 35 percent of his attempts in two full games without Campanaro.
"We've got a skeleton crew around him, and those guys aren't in a great position because they know if they play better, we've got a shot," coach Jim Grobe said. "So there's a lot of pressure on all these guys with the injuries that we've had to move the football and score points. It's not easy on anybody — coaches or players — but that's where we are. You've just got to move forward and get after it. Find a way."
The Demon Deacons have only beaten Clemson once since 2005 — but that game had some powerful aftereffects.
Wake Forest's 12-7 win at home on a Thursday night in 2008 wound up being the last game for Tommy Bowden as the Tigers' coach. He stepped down a few days later while Dabo Swinney was elevated from coaching receivers to interim head coach. He got the job permanently after the season.
Four years later and preparing for another weeknight in Winston-Salem, Swinney says the historical significance hasn't been lost on him.
"Sometimes I sit and reflect and am blown away how quickly life can change," Swinney said. "Looking back four years ago, we've come a long ways, and hopefully we can continue to get better."