As Josh Harris barreled into the end zone from six yards out to cap off a nine play, 62 yard drive to put the Deacs up 25-11 over the Black Knights, I finally exhaled knowing it would be enough to get Wake the win. It certainly wasn't the best game a Wake Forest football team ever played, but then again it's hard to argue with wins, especially those on the road. Wake fans were in for a bit of a scare early on as both teams struggled to move the football throughout the first half. Despite falling down 2-0 in the first quarter and then letting Army come back late in the third and take a flimsy 11-10 lead, Wake never gave up and ultimately left West Point 2-2 on the season.
The victory was due in large part to how the running game went throughout on both sides of the ball. Army, a team well-known for running the option, entered the game having only thrown 38 passes through their first three contests. Despite needing a couple of quick scores late in the game, the Black Knights still only managed to throw the ball 18 times total while running it a whopping 55 for 271 yards. Despite this gaudy rushing number, the Deacs really handled the option attack well. The defensive line was constantly in the back field making life miserable for Army's offense. With normal starters Raymond Maples and Larry Dixon out with injuries, Rich Ellerson's team was forced to rely heavily upon starting quarterback Angel Santiago and junior Terry Baggett to keep the Wake D on their toes. To the duo's credit they both managed to put up respectable stats, particularly Baggett who made the most of the day's opportunities to rush for 125 yards on 16 carries. The only problem Army had was a major 250 pound one: Nikita Whitlock.
It would be impossible to overstate how well Nikita played this week against Army's offensive line. Whitlock missed the matchup last year against Army and it appeared that this motivated him even more than usual to get through and make plays in the backfield. If he had one tackle he had a million: 15 tackles, four for a loss, and a forced fumble where he was almost in the backfield before the option could materialize. He was absolutely everywhere. There were a series of plays in the third quarter where it looked like Nikita made six or seven stops in a row, including one play where he chased Baggett down six or seven yards down the field to assist in the tackling effort. The Black Knights had no answers as to how to prevent Whitlock from wheeling and spinning his way through constant double teams and Nikita made them pay. It was an all-time great performance by a Wake Forest defensive lineman and we can only hope he keeps up the intensity for next week's trip down south to Death Valley.
Alongside Nikita on the defensive front, Zach Thompson recorded eight stops with one tackle for a loss and walk-on linebacker Hunter Williams scooped up two fumbles to provide the Wake offense with a well-needed spark. Army didn't throw much but when they did they were unable to gain much yardage, averaging a meager 4.8 yards a completion. Furthermore, the Deacon defense improved in the area where they struggled the most last week against ULM: third down stops. The Warhawks torched the Deacons on third down, going an improbable 15-28. The 28 total third downs was the most any opponent has ever recorded against Wake in the 100+ year football history. This week against Army was a totally different story and when third down was forced, more times than not the defense got the punt team out as the Black Knights went 5-17 on the critical down.
I think a lot of this difference had to do with how the two teams try to move the football. The majority of the ULM first downs came on passes where it looked like the defense dropped into a soft zone. On Saturday Army tried to pound the football for the third down and when they had more than four or five yards seemed content to play the field position game and cede the battle to have a better chance at winning the war. Regardless of the difference between ULM and Army's game plan, Wake's defense stepped up when it needed to and got Army off the field this week. Despite Army getting the ball in Wake territory twice, they were only able to kick three field goals and Wake kept the rushing attack out of the end zone.
Through four games the Wake defense has put up some very impressive numbers, albeit against a very weak schedule so far. Wake still holds the easiest schedule so far of any team in the conference, ranking in at 152nd out of 252 teams in the nation. The defense is only giving up 15.8 points per game (24th in the nation), 311.5 yards a game, (28th in the nation), a ridiculously low 143.3 passing yards per game (8th in the nation), and then 168.25 rushing yards per game, (still good for 74th in the nation). Regardless of how easy the schedule has been so far, these stats represent a third of the season already. Even if the Deacs give up 30 points a game the rest of the year, which I do not anticipate the unit doing at all, the defense would finish the season with a scoring defense of 25.2 points per game. Based on the 2012 statistics, this would put Wake's defense at 50th - a 41 spot improvement from last year's side which gave up 31.8 points a game.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact differences between this year's unit and last year's unit, but I believe it starts and ends with the penetration the defensive line has gotten so far. Last year our defense acted like they were going to be kicked off the team for even setting foot in the backfield while this year's team is constantly getting pressure on the quarterback and forcing faster decisions. Even on rushing plays we're collapsing a little bit faster and containing running backs within the tackle box instead of allowing them to get outside and turn upfield on any kind of a regular basis. A large part of this has been Nikita's improved play, but I believe a lot of it has to do with Knorr finding a better balance of blitzing packages while getting the ends into the backfield on a more consistent basis to help Nikita out. If the defensive front can keep up the pressure, the secondary will make plays against the pass leading to punts and turnovers. Even with the meat of the schedule upcoming, I expect the defense to keep this team in games well into the second half and give our offense a chance to bring home a couple of unexpected victories. Let's hope it starts this week with Clemson.
Turning focus now to the offense, Wake was able to move the ball far more consistently against Army than it has been against any other opponent so far, including Presbyterian. The Deacs gained 360 yards, including 228 yards on the ground. There were two major differences I noticed between this week and the first three games: the offensive line's blocking was vastly improved and the play calls set the team up for more success. First and foremost, the offensive line was opening up holes from the get go. I commented after the first possession that it was clear we were going to be able to move the ball and this was the type of game where we needed to establish the run straight up the gut to tire down Army's defense. While we strayed from the ground it out run game for a little bit in the middle of the first quarter into the second quarter, I thought Lobo actually did a pretty good job of calling plays up the middle which allowed Josh Harris and Tanner Price to get easy yards through the run.
My biggest criticism of the play calling so far this year has been around the "option" offense which focuses primarily on getting the ball to the outside, either on some sort of misdirection or on a pitch play with Tanner leading the charge. While some of these "option" plays have some sort of a hand-it-off-up-the-middle type component to them, it is clear that the guys are being taught to focus most heavily on getting the ball outside the tackle and then turn it upfield. For the first few games we showed that we don't have the speed or the execution to get this done and the result was a lot of one and two yard losses in the backfield. We still had a little bit of this offense left in the playbook, and did choose to run it a few times to a mixed bag of success. Predominantly though it looked like we tried to run the ball up the middle more against Army and focused on letting JRoc do his thing.
I can't give Josh enough credit for keeping his legs churning and finding the holes against the Army defense which was worn down as the game progressed. It was one of the better days in his career and I think a lot of it had to do with the coaches leaving him in and letting him establish a rhythm out there. He got 19 carries while gaining 96 yards and was rewarded with two touchdowns. He didn't let himself get down early on when he got hit in the backfield on back to back plays for a safety (more on that below), and he kept his head up and kept moving after contact. Three gold stars to Josh for keeping the offense moving forward and looking more north/south than east/west. Keep it up big guy, it was great.
Something on the more negative side which I do want to comment on for a little bit is the play of Tanner Price. It's hard to tell if he took a couple of big hits in the preseason, if he's out of sync because of the amount of time spent working on the "option" offense, or if there's something else going on, but he just doesn't look like himself out there. I've defended Tanner in the past (as a self-anointed message board warrior) from criticism where guys said they just don't think he has what it takes, but this season Tanner has just looked like a different quarterback. He doesn't look as confident in the pocket, he's overthrowing a lot of guys even when they're open, and a lot of the time he doesn't work all the way through his progression because he'll get caught either staring at blitzes or he'll lock on to Camp. Now don't get me wrong, we should be getting the ball to Camp as much as possible but with some solid defenses upcoming you better believe that secondaries are going to be locking down on Camp with double teams forcing Tanner to look elsewhere for receiving help. Price only completed 6 of 17 passes for 132 yards and the majority of that yardage was YAC on Camp's long touchdown catch. He did however manage to pick up 66 yards on 11 carries and give fans at least some sort of explanation as to why we shifted to an "option" type attack with him at the helm. On a lot of these runs he made good decisions to tuck it under and hit the hole.
One final thing I want to say in the quasi-negative category is that while I really thought Wake looked good over the last 20 minutes of the game, I thought Army was absolutely terrible. I know that they run the option offense which is predictable, that they are a military academy, and that they were missing their top two rushers, but they just looked completely lost for most of the game. Their defense had a few fine moments, but all-in-all they were probably one of the worst FBS teams Wake has played in quite a while. I love it that we won, and by two touchdowns at that, but Army is ranked 150th in Sagarin and is not likely to do too well the rest of the year. If they do manage to get to 3 or 4 wins it would be because their schedule is absolutely miserable (with games still remaining against Hawaii, Eastern Michigan, Louisiana Tech, Temple, Air Force, and Western Kentucky - all of which are equal to or worse than Wake in the Sagarin rankings). I don't know what Army can do to improve as the season goes on, but it's pretty clear that whatever they're trying to do out there simply isn't working. I wish the Black Knights the best of luck as the season progresses though and may you have much success.
Well the narrative portion of the article is over, let's get to the weekly awards. We'll start again this week with the positives, the best of the week, the cream of the crop....the Sam Swank Golden Boot. Last week our demi-god Michael Campanaro took home the award and what a performance this week's winner will have to live up to. This was a pretty close one and it came down to three performances which I've already mentioned: Hunter Williams' two fumble recoveries, Nikita's incredible monster performance on the defensive front, and Josh Harris' solid rushing attack. The old adage is that the best offense is a good defense but when you're taking on an academy running an option attack, to gain an edge you've gotta focus all your attention on how to stop that run. This week's Golden Boot has to go to my man Nikita Whitlock with his 14 tackles, three tackles for a loss, and a fumble recovery. Army had absolutely no answers and Nikita was studding out in West Point. ONE GOLDEN BOOT FOR YOU MY FRIEND.
Now it's that time of the week for another award for those wacky plays, those bad plays, those sad plays, those stick your head in your hand plays...it's time for the Lobo's Headset to be given out. I put a lot of thought into this one but there was one moment which literally made me put my head in my hands and has to be discussed in the interest of candor. This one is going to bring in a lot of guys so get ready and hold onto your hats. After holding Army to a punt in the first quarter, the Black Knights downed a pretty solid Alex Tardieu punt at the six yard line. That's not really a big issue since you still have a whole six yards until you're in your own end zone right? Right? RIGHT?!?!?! Wrong.
On first down Wake lined up in a shotgun formation and proceeded to hand the ball off to Josh Harris at the three yard line. When JRoc got the ball he was running directly parallel to the end zone line and by the time he took a couple steps towards the sideline he had guys all over him. I didn't rewatch the play for my own sanity, but I don't have any idea how the defensive front from Army was four yards into the backfield by the time Josh got the ball. It blows my mind. That's okay though because now we're still two yards from our own end zone, just line it up under center and run one up the gut. Hell you could throw a quick hitter to Camp in the slot and gain a yard or two. Wake somehow, and inexplicably so, lined up AGAIN in the shotgun - in the end zone mind you - and ran another handoff from the shotgun formation. Harris may have actually already been hit by the time he got the football. BOOM. Safety. Down 2-0 against Army in the first quarter. That should just never happen.
The headset this week goes to Steed Lobotzke for the comically, hilariously bad back-to-back play calls, Steven Chase for getting beat off the line about as quickly as possible, and basically the entire right side of the offensive line for doing their best possum impression and playing dead. I think it goes without saying from now on that we shouldn't line up and run misdirection plays from the shotgun inside our own 10. I thought this was obvious up to this point, but hey every experience can be a learning experience.
Finally we get to the Kinal Kount. By Alex Kinal standards this week was a walk in the park. He hardly had to do any work as the offense managed to give the ball up in almost every way possible (touchdowns, a field goal, a safety an interception, a missed field goal, and a fumble) but still had four punts. With these four punts on the year Kinal is now up to 25 on the season and on pace for 75 in 2013. I would wager a guess that we're going to be punting a little bit more next week against Clemson but maybe we'll be aggressive and run some fakes or something.
Punts in the 2013 season: 25 (through four games)
Career Punts: 120 (through 16 games)
Punts Needed for Ryan Quigley's ACC Record: 165
Punts Needed for Nick Harris' NCAA Record: 213 (record is 322 by Nick Harris of California between 1997-2000)
Kinal's Yearly Average: 90 (including this year)
Quigley's Yearly Average: 71.0
Harris' Yearly Average: 80.5
So turning the focus now to next week, the Deacs have a pretty difficult matchup with the third-ranked Clemson Tigers in Death Valley. The last few trips to Death Valley have NOT gone very well and I'm (not too) sad to report that I won't be attending since I'm currently 800 miles away in Boston. The Deacs had a big opportunity the last time we were in town to beat the Tigers and essentially clinch a second ACC Championship Game appearance in school history, but we ultimately pulled a Wake Forest and let Clemson finish us en route to the title game after taking a fourth quarter double-digit lead.
Even if I were feeling extremely optimistic I would have to say that I don't like our chances very much, and to be honest I'm not feeling very optimistic. The line opened at Clemson -28 and while I think that's slightly high I think Clemson comes out pretty hot early, feels us out with screens, and basically moves the ball downfield at will. Wake will be too scared to get beat over the top like we normally do with quick teams and will lineup our secondary seven yards off the line all game. Clemson will run six billion screens to Sammy Watkins and we will all scream at our televisions to move our cornerbacks up because they're very talented players.
All that said I'm going to take Clemson 38-10 and give Vegas the benefit of the doubt. My initial pick was Clemson winning 38-14 with a line of three and a half touchdowns, but I'm going to give Vegas their due and trust them on this. This isn't a sleight against Wake, I just think Clemson is a pretty good football team and better Wake teams have gone to Death Valley and taken an absolute beating as well. I hope the Deacs surprise me and we pull off the upset but I don't see it materializing.
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