Williamstown's Jake Benzinger is a starting right tackle for Wake Forest, which plays Friday afternoon in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
Jake Benzinger is joined by his parents and former Williams College football coach Dick Farley in 2015 after signing his National Letter of Intent to attend Wake Forest.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When Jake Benzinger left Williamstown to go to Wake Forest University in the fall of 2015, the Demon Deacons' football program had won 12 games in the last three seasons and had not gone to a bowl game since 2011.
This week, Benzinger comes north with his teammates to compete in Friday's Pinstripe Bowl in New York City, where they will take on Michigan State University at Yankee Stadium on Friday afternoon.
He is one of two Berkshire County products playing in bowls this week. On Monday afternoon, Pittsfield's Jake Hescock, a red-shirt junior tight end at Central Florida, was in Tampa to help the 9-3 Knights take on Marshall in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.
For Benzinger and sixth-year head coach Dave Clawson, a 1989 graduate of Williams College, Friday will be their fourth straight bowl game.
And Benzinger has had a lot to do with that success.
After red-shirting his freshman season, the Mount Greylock Regional School graduate played his first college game in the second week of the 2016 season and made his first start one week later in a 38-21 win over Delaware. He went on to play 103 snaps on the offensive line as a redshirt freshman, earning a varsity letter and helping the Demon Deacons go 7-6, beating Temple in the Military Bowl to give the program its first winning record since 2008.
In the three seasons since, Wake Forest has won two more bowl games and has a combined record of 23-15, including an 8-4 mark this fall heading into Friday's game against the 6-6 Spartans.
2019 marks the first time the school has had four straight winning seasons since the 1940s.
"That's kind of what I committed to," Benzinger said of the renaissance in Winston-Salem. "Coach Clawson is a self-proclaimed program builder. That's kind of what he's done at every coaching staff he's had — bring a program that has been kind of in a rut and make them a winner, a bowl game winner, stuff like that. That's kind of what I bought into. I believed coach could do that. And it's good to see that all play out.
"That was part of the recruiting process. When I was committing to Wake, Wake was 3-9. So you were buying into the idea of what Wake would be like in the future. It's good to see everything come together in that respect."
Individually, Benzinger has been a full-time starter at tackle since his sophomore season in 2017. This year, he earned honorable mention all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors and an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, to be played Jan. 18 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Last week, Benzinger took a break from preparation for his final game in a Wake Forest uniform to talk to iBerkshires.com about his college career and the experience of getting ready for bowl play.
Question: How are preparations going for the Pinstripe Bowl?
Jake Benzinger: Good. We're all studied up on Michigan State, now. It's been helpful to have some weeks off to get the bodies recovered. Now, we've got about five practices in Winston-Salem to get prepped up for Michigan State, and then when we get to the bowl site, we get two practices. We'll be practicing at Columbia University. So we'll be ready to go.
Q: When do you leave for New York?
JB: We head north on Monday.
Q: When you were growing up as a kid, did you ever think that you'd end up playing at Yankee Stadium?
JB: Definitely not. I definitely didn't think that my last college football game would be played at a baseball stadium, either.
But especially playing baseball in high school and all throughout childhood, having it kind of come full circle like that. And seeing so many great Red Sox wins at Yankee Stadium, I'm happy to be playing there.
Q: Have you had a chance to go there before to see a game — either here or at the old Yankee Stadium?
JB: No. I've actually never been. I've only been to Fenway. So I'm excited to see it for the first time. It's going to be fun. And definitely in a different form.
Q: What was your reaction when you saw the bid and Michigan State as the opponent and the whole thing?
JB: It was super exciting. One, I always had a good feeling about the Pinstripe Bowl. I always thought if we ever made a bowl, that would be a great one, especially for me to get a lot of family there. And I've only heard good things about the bowl and all the activities and everything surrounding it.
And being able to play Michigan State, a big-time Big Ten program, is a lot of fun. We get to go against some good competition, a great D-line, good pass rushers. And it speaks to steps Wake has taken as a program.
Q: When I was going through your bio getting ready to talk to you, the thing that jumps out about your career really has been your durability. Have you even miss a start since you got a starting job?
JB: No. Knock on Wood.
And not too many plays. … The last two years, I've had close to a thousand snaps each year, and my first year was close to that. We play an up-tempo offense. We control the ball and run a lot of plays. So that's kind of what's asked of us. And we get to play a lot because of it.
You've got to take the onus on yourself to get your body ready because we play so many snaps.
Q: I was going to ask what you attribute that durability to?
JB: I don't know. Part of it is the grit instilled being a Western Mass kid. I played offense, defense and every special team growing up when I was playing at Mount Greylock. I think that's helped me become a more durable, gritty player at the next level.
It also just helps taking the onus on yourself in the weight room and the training room and making sure your body is in shape through the week.
It's a combination of those two things.
Bezinger, behind, is joined by his coach and teammates at Gillette Stadium in 2014 to receive a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Sportsmanship Award.
Q: Was there a point in your career, looking back, that you realized that you'd made it and you'd become the player you thought you would be and that you'd have the sticking power to hold that starting role for as long as you have?
JB: It comes down to consistency and being the same player you are every day so your teammates and your coaches can rely on you to be the same, best version of yourself everyday. That's kind of something I've learned as I've matured — what it takes to play at this level and how to be a pro. Hopefully, that sticks with me through the rest of life.
Q: But was there a point where you knew you'd made it? Or are you still not there yet in your mind?
JB: I don't know. At this level … I'll probably look back and appreciate it. But at this level, it's hard to look back on it because you're always looking forward to the next game and how do I get better.
If I look back and appreciate too much, I've got Michigan State coming at me with a very good defense, so it's hard.
I'm sure after this season I'll be able to look back and appreciate it and look back on the achievements.
Q: Not to ask you to look back too much, but are there any games that stand out in your mind as special moments when you think about your time there?
JB: I would say the 2017 season, my red shirt sophomore season, the first year I started, our bowl game that year, the Belk Bowl, we were playing Texas A&M and won, 55-52. Just a shootout. That's one of my fondest memories, and looking at that from a program perspective, it showed how far we'd come, beating an SEC team in a bowl game on a big stage. I'm always going to look fondly on that.
And hopefully this next one coming up will top that. But i already have some good memories to look back on.
Q: Looking ahead to next week, the long range forecast in New York is 40 degrees and rain, so not as bad as it will probably be here in Williamstown. Your next game after the bowl game, the weather should be a lot better. What does that opportunity mean to you, and what was your reaction to the invite to the Shrine Bowl?
JB: It was pretty shocking to see the invitation. From where I've been to where I am now, I never thought I'd get that opportunity. But I'm super excited. The work kind of starts now in that respect. It's cool that I got the invitation, but it's really what you do with it. I'll get to go against a lot of really good college players. That's what I want. I get to do that in the ACC, too, but the Shrine Bowl will be a lot of fun.
And our left tackle got invited, too, so that will be fun.
Q: You mention the ACC, and I know you guys are focused on Friday, but there's another game involving the ACC the next day. How interested are you all and how much are you pulling for Clemson as they play in the national semi-final?
JB: It definitely makes us feel better about how we finished up against Clemson. We got beat up pretty good.
Obviously, they're a great team. They won the national championship by a lot last year, and I expect them to be super competitive this year. They're a good program. Obviously, we like to watch them, and I'll be pulling for them, just for ACC pride.
Throughout the bowl season, we like to see ACC teams do well because it's a testament to the strength of our schedule if teams are going out of conference and winning games like that.
Q: Having been through the bowl experience, how different is that in terms of a football game? You have the whole week leading up to it, and you mention you're going to New York on Monday.
JB: Coach wants us to be totally set with the game plan before we leave and go to the bowl. We'll have everything in and perfected by Sunday.
Then when we get to the bowl, it will be dress rehearsals, essentially, from a practice standpoint and having fun at the bowl site and getting ready to win the game. There's no pressure at that point to get the game plan down because you have it down already, so you can enjoy yourself a little at the bowl site.
Q: Finally, you already mentioned your experience playing in Western Mass, and I'm sure you heard about everything that happened this year at Mount Greylock playing in a co-op with Drury. What was your reaction when you heard that was going on?
JB: I was happy that there was at least some guys from Mount Greylock playing, but I was a little bit disappointed to see the good tradition that has gone on at Greylock — I was part of some undefeated teams, some Western Mass Super Bowl teams — to see that, at least go away for a couple of years is a little bit disappointing.
But I think that there's a strong foundation of teams coming up with the Lanesborough Tigers and things like that. I think Greylock football may be a co-op now, but hopefully in the future we can regain a team again.
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