The Wake Forest Demon Deacons are set to kick off their 2011 football season tonight at 8 PM as they travel to Syracuse to take on the Orange. Syracuse is coming off an 8-5 record in 2010 and a thrilling bowl victory over the Kansas State Wildcats. On the other side of the coin the Demon Deacons are fresh off a 3-9 season, which included a nine game losing streak in the middle of the year before a season ending win over Vanderbilt finally provided Wake with their third and final win of the year. This game promises to be an indicator of which Wake Forest team we can expect this year. Will this be a typical Grobe-era team which shows poise and discipline on the field, or will it be a replay of an atrocious 2010 season where injuries, youth, and schemes doomed Wake to their worst record since 2000, the year before Grobe arrived?
Click through for the full game preview for Wake’s season opener with Syracuse
Syracuse will provide quite a challenge to a young Wake Forest team which will rely heavily upon a younger corps of skill players on offense interspersed with an older and more established veteran offensive line, while attempting to improve upon 2010 on the defensive front by a full-out switch to the 3-4 defense. Syracuse did not fare well at home last year, going 0-4 against Big East opponents and only defeating Colgate and Maine, two FCS foes. Similarly, Wake was simply atrocious on the road last year losing by double digits in five of their six road games and the only win of the year coming at Vanderbilt over a cold and wet Thanksgiving weekend.
As a typical first game of the year it is difficult to know exactly what to expect. Even for those ardent fans who have scoured the practice reports and even headed over to the football facility to check things out themselves, no one really ever knows how a team will come out to start the new season. There are several things that must happen right out of the gate though if Wake wishes to compete both tonight and over the season which should be discussed in the context of whether or not tonight’s game can or will be considered a "success" regardless of the win/loss outcome.
1. The experienced offensive line must provide some leverage up front and open up holes for the running game.
o This is absolutely crucial as one of the major problems Wake experienced last year was the inability to open up holes from the big guys up front. There were games which were absolutely successful (Virginia Tech, Presbyterian, Vanderbilt) and there were games where our line looked like they were trying to block the Green Bay Packers (Florida State, Maryland, Stanford). With four seniors and a junior starting on the line, the time is now for both the line and for OC and offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke to prove they have what it takes to compete on the collegiate level. If Lobo cannot get the job done on the offensive line with this year’s returning starters, the area in which he is believed to have the most effective schemes and most experience, how can he ever be expected to get the job done when the players are slightly smaller and less experienced? For Tanner to have time to drop back and hit his receivers, the offensive line MUST create consistent holes for Harris and Pendergrass to run through and force the safeties to start creeping up to stop the run.
2. The defense needs to stay healthy and show that they have what it takes to run the recently adopted 3-4 scheme.
o During the Georgia Tech and Navy games in back to back weekends last year, the Deacs began running more a makeshift 3-4 defense, deviating away from the standard 4-3 most college teams run. It didn’t appear odd at the time due to the proclivity Tech and Navy have for running the option, but when Wake took the field at Maryland fielding the same 3-4 scheme and taking a beating in the process, many questions started flying around the program with regards to this "new" defense Wake was running. It certainly provides the front seven with a much different look than most teams have out on the field as the four standing linebackers can and will come on the blitz from any and all angles. For a quarterback and an offensive line used to dealing with four down linemen and only three linebackers this can certainly cause some confusion and the need for extra preparation in the film room leading up to playing Wake. In this first game tonight, it will be good to see how the players have adapted to learning all the new coverages and schemes which go along with the move to the 3-4. The responsibilities in a 3-4 for a linebacker are very different from those same responsibilities in a 4-3 for that linebacker and tonight will be a large glimpse into whether or not the Deacs will be that defense we saw at Maryland last year or will be ready to shut some teams down.
3. Wake must force more turnovers while limiting their own.
o When Wake Forest had their most successful stretch of football between 2006 and 2008, it was in large part due to the number of turnovers the defense was forcing and the number of defensive touchdowns provided to a fairly low-scoring offense. Skinner’s senior year saw one of Wake’s better offensive campaigns ever, yet we failed to make a bowl because the defense couldn’t step up and force teams to punt, much less force quarterbacks to make throws on the run leading to interceptions and turnovers. If Wake wins against Syracuse tonight, they are going to need to force at least two more turnovers than they commit. Hopefully Price and Harris will hold onto the ball and make smart decisions from the backfield, coupled with the D stepping up and making stops against an experienced Syracuse offense.
A couple of things interesting to note about the game on the Wake Forest side are the injuries to a few players on both sides of the ball and the starters at these same positions. Chris Givens, Michael Campanaro, Kenny Okoro, and AJ Marshall have all been dealing with injuries at the WR and CB positions. This influx of injuries has left freshmen Matt James and Brandon Terry almost certain to see the field (if they wouldn’t already even with Givens and Camp playing) but has also put junior Scooby Jackson in prime position to make the start at the flanker position. Jackson is tentatively also the punt and kickoff returner, but that also remains to be seen who will handle those duties until the game actually begins.
On the defensive side of things with Okoro and Marshall unlikely to start or perhaps even play, walk on sophomore Jason Green will likely get the start opposite RS-Freshman Bud Noel, a last minute commit Wake managed to grab after he decommitted from Florida State. It will be slightly nerve-wracking to see Noel and Green out there in their first starts ever against a fifth-year quarterback Syracuse has in Ryan Nassib.
This game certainly promises to be exciting and perhaps one of the biggest season openers Wake has had in quite some time. This will determine the trajectory of the season. If Wake comes out flat, gets blown out, and the defense proves to be inept it could very well signal a repeat of last year. However, if Wake can come play football the way we know these guys should and can bring a 1-0 record back to Winston tonight after the game, perhaps there will be some hope for this season for a program needing to get back on track towards a bowl game.
Gametime: 8 P.M.
Location: Carrier Dome, Syracuse, New York
Television: 519 for TWC Sports Tier Subscribers, ESPN3 anywhere else (internet)
Line: Syracuse – 6.5
My Prediction: Syracuse 21, Wake 17