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Opponent Preview: Wake Forest

And so the season truly begins...

Demon Deacon speeds through the player run-out on a motorcycle

The Opponent: Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Summer Preview | Roster | SB Nation)

When: September 9, 2023, 10:00 AM CT on ACC Network

Where: Allegacy Federal Credit Union Stadium - Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Last year: 8-5 (3-5 ACC)

The last time we saw these guys: 45-25, Wake Forest (2022)

Series record: 10-7, Vanderbilt

Head Coach: Dave Clawson (59-53 at Wake Forest)

How does a Claw have a son anyways? *badum tss* Dave is better than the record above may indicate. He racked up many of those losses in his first two seasons while he built the program from the ground up, peaking (so far) in 2021 with an 11-1 regular season, an ACC Championship Game berth, and a Gator Bowl win. From what I can tell, he’s a cool guy coaching for a cool team, and he’s been extended out a long long ways, although I couldn’t nail down just exactly how long.

Offense: The Hartman Can’t Hurt You No More

The man who went 18-of-27 for 300 yards against us last year up and grad-transferred away, leaving a pretty big hole in the Wake Forest office that is now being filled by Mitch Griffis. This past weekend, he went 19-for-30 for 329 yards (though, 151 of those were from just three plays) against the Elon Phoenix. Just to cherry-pick for a second, Mike Wright recorded a much higher QBR against Elon when we played them last year, most likely thanks to avoiding interception and rushing for 84 yards. Mitch Griffis seems limited to the passing game (more on this later). Wake Forest also rushed for fewer yards and scored fewer points than we did against less than the stoutest of competitors. Hopefully that’s somehow indicative of relative weakness in Wake Forest’s offense.

Now, onto the film. First off, that 33-yard touchdown pass to Jahmal Banks was pretty cool. Looking at the other two big receptions, and most of the smaller ones in-between, a lot of Wake’s success in the air seemed to come from their receivers simply being able to outrun Elon. I only have the one game this season to go on, but sometimes it seemed like a meh pass from Mitch Griffis would end up completed just because the receiver was able to blaze by their defender. That’s not to say this offense isn’t good, just that they were only playing an FCS team, after all. I am sincerely hoping that we have the speed and size necessary to limit a few of these bigger plays and that De’Rickey Wright can get us a pick or two, because we’ll probably need ‘em.

On the ground, Wake looked ROUGH. Maybe even rougher than we do. Their o-line seemed like it might have been outsized by the Elon d-line, which aligns well with what I wrote last year (I searched and searched and couldn’t find it, but it’s out there somewhere) that Wake Forest is generally a bit on the small side. Griffis did a lot of waiting, even while he was expected to be a little bit more mobile. Of course, “waiting” is at the heart of the Slow Mesh Offense that Wake Forest is famous for running, but I felt like the mesh was much faster than I had been led to expect. Often, it was because the line was leakier than last year and a decision had to be made in the face of an Elon defense that recorded 4 sacks and 8 TFL. I expect them to have to move a little faster next week, too.

I feel like I’m all over the place, but to summarize, Wake Forest still has a good quarterback, their o-line is worse, their ground attack is just not that great at all, and they seem to have veered a little bit away from the slow mesh of recent memory whether out of necessity or offensive evolution. I wouldn’t expect them to score as much as they did last year, I just don’t think they have the size or quite the level of talent. I just hope we have the speed and heads-up-ness to limit big plays and the strength to take advantage of this weak o-line.

Defense: “Wicked” Fast

These guys are fast. And shifty. I am scared. When they were able to get even an inch around Elon, they closed on the quarterback and the whole play was blown up or shut down before it had even begun. Everyone always seemed to know like they at least had some idea of what was happening. Now, it’s entirely possible that Elon is just bad and that this is the same Wake Forest defense that gave up an average of 28 points last year, but I still think they are going to give us a lot of trouble. If I had to pick a guy to watch, based just on the box score and the highlight clips, it would probably be Jacob Roberts at LB who recorded 1 sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in the Elon game. He often looked like he just kinda knew what was going to happen in the clips I watched. I think this whole group of guys kinda seemed like that at times, and they had that high-energy swarminess you like to see in a defense.

Special Teams: Don’t Punt

Matthew Dennis has a long of 46 yards and is 15-for-17 in his career. Doesn’t seem to be anything spectacularly special, but he’s good. Their punter, Ivan Mora, seems to be in the same pretty good boat. He has been very consistent over the past few years, averaging around 40 yards a punt. Interestingly, from what I can tell, across 133 punts, he has never had a touchback, but he has also only ever had 6 punts downed within the 20, so I think this just means that Wake Forest usually doesn’t punt close to the end zone.

Taylor Morin and Ke’Shawn Williams seem to be returning kickoffs and punts, respectively. Taylor Morin was about average last year, coming in around 7.53 yards/return, but he definitely has a little bit of upside here: the year before, he was a top-10 punt returner and his 2020 season was really good, too, even if his is harder to evaluate that season due to a lower volume. Whatever the case, this guy is pretty good and we could end up punting a lot is Wake Forest’s defense is as good as it looked against Elon, so watch out. Ke’Shawn Williams does not have quite as much history at returning kickoffs, and from what I can tell there is less to worry about here. He seems to average under 20 yards/return over his 29 career attempts, and did so over the season last year when he returned 12 kickoffs for 235 combined yards. He did have a few big returns last week, including one for 44 yards, but I am not too worried here.


Outlook: Party Upfront, Business in the Back

The first half of Wake’s season shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for them aside from maybe Clemson (and are we so sure that will be a challenge anyways?), which should give them plenty of time to get ready for Pitt, Florida State, Duke, Notre Dame, and Syracuse who are all going to be real tough this year. They will probably end up with 7 or 8 wins, maybe 9 if their defense is actually legit and they figure out how to run the ball a little harder. I think we definitely CAN beat them, though, we will probably just need to keep things speedy on offense and bring the pressure on defense.