The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After being picked on all game, a Clemson DB gets to be the hero

No. 5 Clemson 51, No. 21 Wake Forest 45 (2OT)

It was a rough day for Clemson cornerback Nate Wiggins (20) against Wake Forest until the very end. (Chuck Burton/AP)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — How did our society become so hostile toward defensive backs? What did defensive backs ever do to us to earn our pleasure at watching them get burned and then burned and then burned? How did we wind up setting our football rules and our pass-giddy offenses so that our Saturdays can feature these fit yet hapless people in heaps of desperation we then label as embarrassment? Are we sadists?

They held a whirlwind of a football game loaded with football skill here on Saturday, and visiting No. 5 Clemson nudged No. 21 Wake Forest by 51-45 in double overtime, and nobody made any turnovers, and Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei showed his gathering experience with 371 passing yards, five touchdown passes and sage patience, and Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman showed his continued merit with 337 passing yards, six touchdown passes and breathtaking deep balls.

Speaking of those deep balls, they also held an emblem of the era: another of those 21st-century humiliations of defensive backs. They did it with 32,903 screaming witnesses as if to be mean and put it on national TV as if to be meaner. Defensive backs flailed and interfered. Clemson defensive backs interfered so often it began to look like a keen Wake Forest strategy. “Neither team could really defend the deep ball,” said Dave Clawson, the demonstrably excellent Wake Forest coach.

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Eventually, Clemson (4-0, 2-0 ACC) had to start being nicer to its defensive backs, riddled by Hartman and receivers such as Jahmal Banks (six catches, 141 yards) and A.T. Perry (four catches, 51 yards, multiple coaxed interference penalties). “Toward the end,” Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said, “we made some adjustments that maybe we were giving up the run game but we were keeping the deep ball a lot more in check.” Wake Forest took what the defense gave, as the ancient dialect goes, and ran the ball repeatedly.

While it can be melancholy seeing defensive backs suffer while people cheer their suffering, it can be harder when a brunt of it centers on one defensive back. On Saturday that came to Clemson’s Nate Wiggins, a sophomore from Atlanta. He committed at least three interference penalties, including an especially graphic one on a deep ball near the goal line where he just about ripped the head off the receiver. He also turned up repeatedly next to receivers catching thrilling things.

Pretty soon, he apparently sat down in woe.

“He was down on himself,” said K.J. Henry, the Clemson defensive end and team leader. “Felt like he was letting the team down. I told him, ‘You’re letting us down by sitting here feeling sorry for yourself.’”

Henry said, “Coach [Dabo] Swinney said it best: They’ve got to have thick skin.” Maybe society is just helping them develop it. Henry also said he doesn’t feel sorry for defensive backs, that they signed up for the job, that the best of them, such as Jalen Ramsey of the Los Angeles Rams, gain huge contracts because of their value to a society bent on exposing them.

Finally, the stirring game Clemson led 14-0, Wake Forest led 28-20 and 35-28, and neither led 38-38 at the end of regulation, came to a 154th play. The Deacons (3-1, 0-1) had wobbled with their second overtime possession, so now they faced fourth and six, 21 yards from the goal line, Clemson with a 51-45 lead forged on tight end Davis Allen’s leaping catch in the middle of the end zone. Now one last time, as it happened, Hartman let one heave toward the left side of the end zone and toward Perry, who briefly looked in the clear.

Here would come the moment to tell the old postgame tale that never gets old: the wide difference in locker-room moods over something so achingly close. Soon you’d hear one side exulting from outside the doors, and soon you’d have the other coach saying, as did Clawson: “The locker room right now is hurting. It’s a football team that has invested a lot, and they care a lot, and they expected to win this game.”

On all the little things, maybe even this 154th play, all the feelings would swing. Henry would say: “Danced my tail off. I went in and told them, ‘Crank the music up.’” He would say, “There was going to be so much criticism, but there was so much love in that locker room.” He would say of the game, “It let us know what we have mentally, for sure.” Offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter got to say it “showed our unity.”

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Everyone would glow about Uiagalelei, the largest key to the Clemson season and one of the largest keys to the national season. He already was a horror into which to bang at 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, but now he is a developing college football scholar. Uiagalelei got to say happily, “It’s just a blessing, man, to be able to play college football,” and, “Hey man, I’m just trying to do my part, just trying to do my one-eleventh,” and, “I’m super-excited for where the offense is going.”

Streeter got to glow chirpily and liked “some plays he made from the pocket when he had his poise because he had such good protection and he didn’t freak out, just continued to look downfield like a quarterback should do.” Henry could say of Uiagalelei, “I couldn’t smile any harder.”

Clemson had all its dreams, which usually involve playoffs around Clemson.

How? The ball flew toward Perry, and who should move into the picture from near the goal line but Wiggins himself. He flew across the scene, blocked the ball, sort of guided it to the ground and then splatted down there on his stomach, arms and palms down. “The DB made a game-winning play, you know what I’m saying?” Henry said. It was time someone said something supportive.