SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson has prepared for Saturday’s matchup against No. 20 Notre Dame (7-3) with a heavy heart.
When he turns on the tape, he sees former Demon Deacon quarterback Sam Hartman, who transferred to the Fighting Irish in the offseason.
“I think the world of Sam,” coach Dave Clawson said. “Quite honestly, it’s hard for me to watch Notre Dame football because that’s the Wake Forest quarterback playing for them. He spent five years here and did a lot for our program. We’re still close.”
The Wake Forest offense was prolific in Hartman’s hands, including scoring 41.0 points per game (4th out of 130 FBS teams) in 2021 and carrying the team to a division title in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the league championship game in 2021.
He departed as the program’s career passing leader with 12,967 yards and 110 touchdowns.
The Demon Deacons (4-6) have taken a noticeable step back without him under center. They are 1-6 in the ACC and have lost their last three games.
Of course, Hartman has endured his own struggles since the breakup.
He started the year off on fire, completing 71.1% of passes for 265.3 yards per game, 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Hartman’s stats have plummeted in the six games since, where he has connected on 58.3% of throws for 201.8 yards per game, five scores and seven picks.
“You have so much success early that it’s like, ‘Oh man, he’s just mastered this. We’re good to go,’ ” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said. “He makes every perfect read and those types of things. And then you play some really good defenses, and we haven’t performed as well.”
Wake Forest’s defense is of a lower caliber compared with other recent Irish opponents. Notre Dame’s three losses this season were to Ohio State, Clemson and Louisville, each of which owns a top-20 defense.
The Demon Deacons give up an average of 372.2 yards (65th). But Hartman’s presence might provide Wake Forest defenders with an opportunity they have longed for.
“I was joking with our team today that for five years, Sam wore a green jersey, and they weren’t allowed to hit him,” Clawson said. “So, this is the first time any of our defensive guys will ever be allowed to hit him.”
The Demon Deacons average 20.5 points (T-112th) and 331.7 yards (103rd).
Wake Forest has yet to score more than 21 points in an ACC game this season. That included last week’s 26-6 loss to North Carolina State, where the Demon Deacons posted 163 total yards.
It’s gotten to the point that Clawson could even evaluate or adjust the use of Wake Forest’s famed slow mesh offense.
“Is it what we’re doing or who we’re doing it with?” he said. “And if what we’re doing, we don’t have the people to do it with, then you need to change what you’re doing.”
Of course, Hartman’s departure likely has something to do with the program’s dramatic drop in offensive production.
“We haven’t played as well at the quarterback position as we had for the past two or three years,” Clawson said.
Initial replacement Mitch Griffis struggled as the full-time starter at quarterback, completing 59.9% of passes for 1,553 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Clawson has even pulled him at times, looking for a spark. Now it appears he is on to a permanent change in redshirt junior Michael Kern, who would have been the starter sooner if not for suffering on the final play against Virginia Tech.
“We need to see what he can do the rest of this year,” Clawson said, “and then we’ve got to kind of make a decision on what we’re going to do moving forward at quarterback. So we hope he plays really well, albeit against a very good defense.”
On Saturday, the Irish will honor a robust group of 31 seniors, which includes graduate students like Hartman, with a quick pre-game ceremony.
“I’m sure it’ll be a little awkward pregame,” Clawson said. “But postgame, I’ll give him a big hug and let him know how much we care about him and tell him I root for him every game except one this year.”
Putting feelings aside, Clawson is likely more concerned with the seniors on the other side of the ball.
Notre Dame limits opponents to 16.9 points per game (12th) and just 280.4 yards of offense (7th).
“I’ve known (defensive coordinator) Al Golden for a number of years, and he’s an excellent defensive football coach,” Clawson said. “They are just so gap sound, assignment sound. There are no freebies, and they are old. Of their 12 starters (including their nickel), 10 of them are seniors.”
Wake Forest (4-6) at No. 20 Notre Dame (7-3, No. 19 CFP), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EST (NBC)
Line: Notre Dame by 24 ½, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Series record: Notre Dame 4-0.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
Notre Dame hosts Wake Forest on Saturday, looking to bounce back after a disappointing road loss to Clemson two weeks ago. The Fighting Irish are 4-0 all-time against the Demon Deacons. Their last matchup came in 2018 when Notre Dame defeated Wake Forest and its freshman starting quarterback Sam Hartman, 56-27. FanDuel Sportsbook favors the Irish to pick up another multi-touchdown victory, this time with Hartman on their roster after transferring to South Bend in the offseason. Coach Dave Clawson desperately hopes to upset his former quarterback as Wake Forest needs to win out to become bowl eligible.
The Wake Forest offense has struggled this season, so it’s on defense to ensure Saturday is a low-scoring affair. That’s not out of the question, given Hartman’s recent play for the Irish. In the last six games, he’s completed 58.3% of throws for 201.8 yards per game, five scores and seven picks. Even if Hartman is held in check, Wake Forest also must contend with Notre Dame’s potent ground attack. Running back Audric Estimé averages 98.8 yards rushing per game (20th) and has 13 touchdowns (T-7th). Wake Forest boasts its best defense in the last six seasons, giving up 372.2 yards per game (65th).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Wake Forest: RB Demond Claiborne has had some good moments this year, including 165 yards rushing against Vanderbilt and 96 yards with two scores against Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame: S Xavier Watts leads the nation with seven interceptions, including five in the last three games. He also leads Irish defensive backs with 42 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, four pass deflections and a forced fumble.
FACTS & FIGURES
The two programs first faced off in 2011. … The Irish actually defeated the Demon Deacons a fifth time in 2012, but the NCAA has vacated that win. … Wake Forest is tied for 112th in turnover margin, with 20 turnovers lost this season. … Notre Dame is tied for fifth with 20 turnovers gained. … Estimé is 12 yards from his first 1,000-yard rushing season. … Notre Dame is 16-0-2 on games that take place on Nov. 18.