For better or worse, Wake Forest played one of the better games I can ever recall the Deacs playing on Saturday against the Miami Hurricanes. The Deacs jumped out to a 14-3 lead after Michael Campanaro grabbed a touchdown pass from Tanner Price towards the end of the second quarter, but were ultimately unable to hold on as the Hurricanes tacked on two late fourth quarter touchdowns to steal the victory. Wake built upon the momentum gained over the past three weeks in wins over N.C. State and Maryland but the upset bid fell short as Price's pass on second down with under a minute remaining was picked off after ricocheting off of Jared Crump's hands. Miami takes on Florida State next week and opened up today as a 21 point underdog while Wake heads to upstate New York to face off against the Syracuse Orange.
Let's get to it.
1. Wake Forest's opening drive was the best offensive drive in a very long time.
Wake got the ball first and grounded out a 16 play, 79 yard drive capped off by a 12 yard touchdown run by Josh Harris to go up 7-0. The drive was heavy with a short passing attack which forced the Hurricanes to creep up and try to contain the quick hitters. When the Canes started crashing on the outside, Wake got off some well timed rushes which helped keep the defense honest. Price did a heck of a job tucking the ball under and gaining a couple of yards a play when he saw things breaking down around him, and even though he never reeled off a lengthy run he was at least a somewhat credible threat to a Miami defense looking to deal with the spread offensive line attack Wake has run over the past three games.
Freshman Tyree Harris used the first drive to stake his claim as a formidable second receiving option across from Campanaro and had three total catches on the drive for 25 total yards. Meanwhile Harris rushed the ball four times for a total of 30 yards and the lengthy balanced attack left the Canes gasping for air as the defense couldn't get off the field. Price successfully led the team to four consecutive third down conversions, three of which were seven or more yards. This had been an area of struggle for the Deacs and even with an 8-16 day on third down, Wake still ranks just 93rd in the country on third down conversions at a rate of only 35.6%.
When Harris crashed into the end zone from 12 yards out, the Deacs completed their longest drive of the year and let the Hurricanes know that they were in for a handful. This was one of the better drives I can recall of the Grobe era and was truly an impressive offensive display.
2. The game ball goes to Duke Johnson
Every time it looked like Wake was out of it, Miami came crashing back with a potent rush offense. There had been rumors that sophomore Duke Johnson wouldn't play after he left the UNC game with migraines, but he was out there and man did it make a difference. When it was all said and done Johnson rushed the ball 30 times for 168 yards and two touchdowns. Wake had absolutely no answer for the explosive running back who had increasingly larger holes to run through as the game went on. With Stephen Morris struggling to hit his receivers in stride, even when the were wide open, the Canes were fortunate to be able to pound it out on the ground and grind the ball down field with relative ease on the final drive of the game.
One minor point which I heard talked about several times, from both Wake fans and objective commentators, was Johnson's proclivity to aggressively place his hands in the defender's face. While it was discussed on the Roll the Quadcast by Rob and Riley this week, I'll just add that while a few of these plays were clean stiff arms it was apparent that there is a different facemask standard for the two sides of the ball. I realize that the runner is allowed to stiff arm the facemask and have his palms flat out, but Johnson took this to an extreme a couple of noticeable times during the Wake game and clearly had his hand grasping the facemask.
Only adding insult to injury was the facemask call on the Deacs when they thought it was going to be 3rd and 7 on the Canes last drive. Replays clearly showed that the defender, Ryan Janvion, grazed the facemask, but ultimately grabbed the top of the jersey near the shoulder pads. This was an absolutely critical call the refs butchered and gave the Canes a far greater shot to get in the end zone. These aren't excuses saying Wake was certainly going to win, just observations that there was a bit of inconsistency surrounding the facemask penalties throughout the game. This is not just the case with this game, but also with offensive facemask calls (or lack there of) in general for college football.
3. Tanner Price had a heck of a game
Tanner has been under some relatively heated criticism from Wake fans for the better part of two years now and he absolutely needs credit where credit is due. Tanner had time to step back and throw and almost every time he was settled into the pocket he made a great decision to get the ball in for a completion. While he still short armed a couple of throws during the game, he was able to get out on the run as mentioned above as well as provide the Deacs with a confident leader on the offensive side. While he threw one interception in the game, it was a ball which hit the receiver in the hands and bounced out for a great interception by the Miami defense to seal the game. This wasn't on Price at all and is unfortunate that he is credited with the pick.
Price ended the game 25 for 45 for 302 yards, 2 TD's and 1 interception. On the year Tanner has thrown for 1778 yards with a 59% completion percentage and 12 touchdowns with only 4 picks. He has done almost everything the offensive coaches have requested of him and he has done it damn well. I've been a pretty staunch defender of Tanner throughout his tenure at Wake blaming most of the shortcomings he's exhibited on the coaching staff's inability to develop him or put in him in a position to succeed and I stand by this. When he is a game manager and put in a place where he can make throws when given more than a second or two to pass, he has great arm strength and pretty solid accuracy. He has been an underrated contributor to the team over his four years as quarterback and deserves credit where credit is due. Mr. Price had one hell of a game against the Canes
4. Wake's defense continues to be very good - even with Johnson's gaudy numbers
Wake's defense currently ranks in the top 60 of each of the four major defensive categories. While Johnson's rushing totals slightly increased the Deacs' average rushing yards allowed on the year, the team ranks 25th in the nation in scoring defense while getting back to a little bit of the bend but don't break mantra of the 2006-2008 years. The Deacs also rank 52nd in rush defense, 49th in pass defense, and 37th in total defense. The team has also forced 16 turnovers, good enough for 25th in the country. I said before the year I expected this to be one of the best defenses in Wake history and I have not been disappointed (other than the Clemson game). I also stated that the Deacs would finish in the top 40 or 50 of scoring defenses and barring a massive collapse, this should certainly occur. Florida State is almost certain to score 50+ points, but the defense looked fantastic this week against the Hurricanes.
The only major criticism of the defense was the inability to get a stop against the run coming down the stretch. Everybody in the stadium knew that the Canes were going to run the football and we utterly failed to stop it. This was a mixture of a failure to get a good push up front and a failure to bring a good mix of blitzes to seal off the holes. Miami was able to quiet the defensive ends and keep Nikita at bay while Johnson got to the second level multiple times before the linebackers were anywhere in the proximity of the rusher. It was hard to tell if this was scheme or poor execution, but it bit us in the butt several times and ultimately allowed the Hurricanes to score. It's hard to complain too much about the defense when they held the Canes to 24 points, and did quite well, but it was an extremely frustrating finish and one which could have gone either way. Wake's defense has kept the team in a lot of games this year, and they, like Tanner, deserve a substantial amount of credit over the past three games. Including the Miami game, the D has only allowed 47 points over the past three conference games for an average of 15.6 points per.
5. Wake's spread offensive line causes chaos for opposing defenses
I said last week that I believed that Miami would be able to overcome the Wake offensive line scheme of spreading out defenders due to their general athleticism and quickness. This was not the case. Wake's spread scheme did the same thing to Miami's rush that it did to both State and Maryland in that it completely mitigated it. Before the last three games, Tanner was almost on the run before he got the ball on every pass play. The switch to this scheme creates chaos as it looks like defenses have absolutely no idea how to play against it. They try to come through the gap in the middle, but the offensive linemen have enough time to shift laterally and quell the threat. Normally this would allow the defensive ends to get around the outside with the line collapsing inward, but since the guys are so far spread out, the line doesn't collapse when a couple guys shift in - it simply moves smaller portions of the offensive line rather than the whole thing.
This allows Tanner time to throw, allows running backs time to hit the hole with vigor, and doesn't put as much pressure on Wake linemen to beat their guy one on one or put them on the ground. It's a scheme which provides Wake a competitive advantage in that they're running an offense that defenses hardly, if ever, see. It's extremely difficult to prepare for and I think it's going to be an absolute nightmare for Syracuse next week. I think things will go very similar for Syracuse defensively as they did for State and Maryland: very very poorly. This wrinkle in the offense is the type of creativity the Deacs have been sorely missing over the past few years. It may be an example of a blind squirrel finding an acorn after days and days of searching, but it has been one of the major reasons Wake's offense has been able to switch effectively from the option attack to the short passing attack.
Well, to be honest, I thought the Miami defense would give a great opportunity for Kinal to add to his vaunted Kinal Kount. While I couldn't be happier that Wake was competitive recently, I've been a little bit disappointed at the slow decline of Kinal's total punt count. It's slightly funny that even with the decrease in punts per game, he's still punting the ball a lot this year (which just indicates how much he really had been punting per game) and has a pretty high punt rate still. So let's update the stats since with his first punt against the Canes, he crossed the halfway mark to the ACC punting record. He needs to punt the ball 19 more times this year (in four games) to be on pace to break the NCAA record through two years. it's likely he will reach this mark as it's just under five punts a game.