No, seriously, this week I could NOT be happier. For the first time since the 1997 season (according to my rudimentary research skills), Wake Forest football has won back-to-back ACC games by double digits. In 1997, Jim Caldwell was in his fifth year as head coach, Bill Clinton was president, and I was seven. It took 16 years for a Wake team to do it again, but the 2013 installment of the Deacs managed to go where not even Jim Grobe had gone before and duplicate this feat. After the N.C. State game this article switched over to a new format and given the success of the team since that fateful day, I have to stick with the five point plan. Without further ado, let's get underway.
1. Where has this offense been all year?
I start with the offense not because it was the best unit on the field on Saturday, that honor clearly goes to the defense who was amazing, but because it was the biggest surprise of the game. The offensive coordinators stuck with the plan which worked against N.C. State and ran the ball sparingly while throwing the ball from a variety of sets. The offensive line used the same spread out tactics which the team broke out two weeks earlier and the play calling was eerily reminiscent of the 2006-2008 creative play calling which helped put Wake on the national grid in college football.
After going predominantly with a running back by committee for the first few games of the season, Josh Harris received the bulk of the carriout of the backfield going for 47 yards on nine carries with a touch. One of the reasons for this increase in yards per carry was the unique sets which the offense ran the ball out of. On the second play of the game Price lined up out of the shotgun with Harris by his side and the offensive line spread out which allowed JRoc to burst through the line of attack for 28 yards to get down to the Maryland three yard line. This gain was critical in that it made the Terps respect the run, crowd the box, and try to get some push against the offensive front. The brilliant tactic for Wake was they then went almost exclusively with the pass for the rest of the game (excluding goal line carries), but had Maryland guessing all game if the run would come back.
I don't know who was calling the plays, rumors were again swirling that Elrod's duties were increased again on that front, but regardless of what occurred the play calling was inventive, creative, and exciting to watch. I said it at the game so in the interest of full candor to you guys I'll say it again: I would be extremely surprised if Lobo was the one making the calls given his lack of success over the past few years, but whoever called the plays deserves props because Maryland's defense never caught up.
2. The defense was incredible
There's no reason to get fancy with the language: the defense was amazing, incredible, awesome, whatever you want to call it. The game got off to a fast start for the Deacs as Nikita stuffed C.J. Brown in the backfield for a loss of 12 yards on the opening play and the defense never let up. By the time the game was over Brown had been replaced, backup Caleb Rowe had been exposed, and the Demon Deacon secondary had their swag back. Brown was unable to get comfortable in the pocket at any point during the afternoon and it showed as he consistently had happy feet and missed receivers left and right. The first interception, a great pick by Bud Noel, was due to Brown missing his receiver by a step. While he entered the game as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country he just never got settled and the main culprit was Nikita Whitlock, but more on him later.
By the time Maryland fans were even in their seats the Deacs had forced a three and out and powered their way into the end zone. At the end of the first quarter the Deacs led 10-0, and midway through the second quarter the Deacs picked Brown off twice in three passes. The lone mistake on the day was a bomb over the top from Caleb Rowe in the third quarter which put the Terps within two scores, but the defense came back with critical stops on fourth down in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
The Wake defense is now in the top half of the country in all four major defensive categories. Despite taking an absolute beating in Death Valley, the D has now allowed only 23 points in the past two games which has enabled the Deacs to easily dispatch two conference opponents. The team ranks 24th in the nation in scoring defense, 41st in the country in rush defense, 57th in the nation in pass defense, and 38th in total defense. It's pretty difficult to cull through defensive stats on any reputable website on the internet, which is pretty aggravating given how easy it is to access most things, but as far as I can tell this defense would be one of the top units in Wake Forest history if the season ended today. Now obviously the matchups with Miami, Florida State, and Vanderbilt may produce some outlier results as far as points allowed goes, but I would be pretty surprised if the team falls outside the top 50 in scoring defense. That's pretty solid for the Deacs and this is the best the defense has been since the 2006-2008 run.
3. Nikita Whitlock is an absolute beast
Anybody who is a Wake fan already knows this, and anybody who has played Wake in the past two years probably knows it as well, but Nikita Whitlock is good at football. Despite being one of the smallest nose guards in the history of Division I football (I'm guessing), the senior is tied for second in the country in tackles for loss with 12.5 on the season and tied for fifth in the country with seven sacks. As mentioned by Riley on this week's Roll The Quadcast, Whitlock either sacked or got a hit on the quarterback on five of the first eight plays from scrimmage. Maryland may as well have named Nikita their starting quarterback because he spent more plays in the back field than C.J. Brown ultimately did.
On the second drive Nikita had a chance to wrap up Brown in the back field and sack him, but missed and it just geared up his motor even more. This was probably the best game that Nikita has ever played in a Wake uniform and that's saying something given his tackle fest earlier this year at Army, but this was the game where he's had the most impact and I'm not even sure it's close. By the middle of the second quarter the Terps were throwing double and triple teams at Whitlock and he wasn't even slowed down. I don't think he will fit in at the NFL level as a NG or a DT but a guy with as much football intelligence and as quick a motor as Nikita has, he will undoubtedly either get drafted in the late rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft or go as a free agent to a team in Training Camp. I could see Nikita getting picked up as a situational pass rusher on third down as an linebacker with a dual role on special teams. He's just too good to go untouched by the NFL and he's very likely to be First Team All-ACC at defensive tackle. I love Nikita and he obviously loves Wake Forest. I'm legitimately going to miss watching him play football next year and will treasure his final few games in a Deacon uniform.
4. What's the deal with the offensive blocking scheme?
A large portion of Wake Forest's success on offense appears to be due to the decision to switch to a wide split for the majority of the offensive line. Instead of the traditional gaps on the offensive front, the Deacs have been spreading the line out which forces the defense to make a choice: they can either load up the defensive pressure in the box between the gaps while giving up the edges or they can line up like a normal defensive front and try to go through or around the defense thus giving Tanner considerably more time to find guys down field.
This was an ingenious and well-needed idea for a few reasons. First and foremost the offensive line has been a weakness for the Deacon offense for roughly five years. It's been a long time since I recall the offensive line being a serious force which opened up gaps for the run or provided enough pass protection for the QB to make a well-timed throw. Teams aren't used to seeing these unique gaps on the offensive line and don't know how to adequately prepare for it in advance. While it's very likely that more athletic teams like Miami and Florida State will have the speed and power to either go around or through the gaps in a timely manner, other fronts like State and Maryland clearly didn't adapt in enough time and Wake made them pay. This change provided a major difference for Wake and it's been obvious. Even with the difference in play calling - the move away from the feeble option offense - I don't know that the rotating offensive line would give Tanner enough time without this change in scheme. The offensive line coach and offensive coordinators both deserve major props for this shift, it has literally been a season changer.
The flip side of this of course is that the we all knew the offensive line would be weak. The coaching staff even went as far to point out at a few press conferences earlier in the season that the offensive line was a liability when the majority of the fan base thought it was obvious the play calling was the issue. If we knew the offensive line was going to be a problem and we were able to make these changes in the middle of the regular season, it follows that we could have spent the spring and offseason implementing these changes with a creative offense from the get go rather than wasting that time installing an option offense with a pocket passer and relatively immobile senior quarterback. I'm glad we made the change and as I said props are due, but with this compliment must come the criticism that it occurred five games too late to really impact the full season. If it saves the season and gets us to a bowl I will be thrilled, but it can't erase the utterly unacceptable offense we saw for the first few games of the year when we played the weakest part of the schedule.
5. Is this a bowl bound team?
I asked the question after the N.C. State game, but with another win to push the season record to 4-3 I think it's worth revisiting rather or not the Deacs can make a bowl. There are five games remaining and at least two of the five are very winnable. The matchup with Syracuse on the road in two weeks is a battle of two virtually identical teams while the Duke game at home sets the stage for a big sixth win if we can take care of business leading up to that point. While Miami and Florida State both appear to be out of reach, particularly the FSU matchup in light of the Clemson-FSU game, Vanderbilt is an intriguing matchup. The Commodores had struggled so far this year and head coach James Franklin has been under some criticism, but they bounced back with a huge fourth quarter to upset an injury-riddled Georgia team this weekend. I think it is extremely likely that Wake enters the season finale in Nashville with either five or six wins and the Deacs will almost certainly have a shot at bowl eligibility in the 12th and final game of the year. Vanderbilt has handed Wake two extremely embarrassing loses at Groves Stadium over the past two years and perhaps this is a chance to get some sort of retribution.
I'm not trying to write off Wake's chances this week in Miami, nor am I saying that Wake might not be somewhat competitive against Florida State, but for the sake of this article I'm going to realistically assume that we don't win either of those two games against top 10 opponents. Syracuse just got absolutely thrashed by Georgia Tech 56-0, but did manage to beat N.C. State last weekend. On a neutral field these two teams would almost be a toss-up, but I expect Syracuse to open as a two point favorite or so at the Carrier Dome barring a major upset in South Beach by the Deacs. Duke is one game away from a bowl bid and while I'll leave the deeper analysis to Rob and Riley on the podcast about Duke football, I'll just say that I'm not sold on Duke by any means. I think Wake will be able to move the ball at will against the Blue Devils defense and with our defense playing as well as it has been I don't think that Boone and company will put up a lot of points at BB&T.
I don't have an answer at this point, but I'm going to set our expected wins over the remaining five games at 1.25-1.5 games. I would be stunned if we went 4-8 and I think the money is on a 5-7 finish, but Grobe and company have really put the team in position to be competitive for a bowl bid over the remaining five games. Let me know what you guys think in the comments about our bowl opportunity this season.
With our offense picking up the pace over the past few games, our main man Alex Kinal hasn't been getting as much action but he got off to such a torrid punting pace through the first five games that he's still on pace to shatter every punting record in the history of the game. Let's get an update on the Kinal Kount.
If Kinal didn't punt again this year he would be tied with Quigley's ACC record pace. Since we have five games left, and even with the increased offensive effort Kinal has been punting six plus times per game, I expect he will easily be up to 170 or 180 punts by the end of the season - particularly with an eight or nine punt game surely upcoming against an incredible FSU defense. So don't worry Wake fans, Kinal padded his stats so much that even with a slight decrease in "productivity" he's still an odds-on favorite to break the ACC record as well as the NCAA record.
This week gave almost too many candidates for the illustrious Sam Swank Golden Boot. I went back and forth between two absolutely amazing options: Nikita Whitlock and Michael Campanaro, but I have to give the award to my man Camp for yet another incredible offensive explosion against the Terps. Camp had 11 catches for 122 yards and a touchdown. He also went 2-2 passing the football and threw his fourth career TD to quarterback Tanner Price on trick play out of the wildcat formation. As a quick side note I've gotta give a shout out to Price for being just the second ACC player since 2000 (C.J. Spiller was the other) to record a passing, rushing, and receiving touchdown in the same game. With the 11 catches Campanaro set the all-time Wake Forest receptions record, dethroning Wake legend Desmond Clark with 217 career catches. Camp is an all-time great Deacon and continued to pad his stats and campaign for first team All-ACC. Camp is also quickly escalating up my all-time favorite Deacons list which I know is far more important as far as Camp is concerned so keep doing it for me big guy!
After some thought I really couldn't think of any immediate bizarre, ridiculous, or incompetent plays so I've decided to award Lobo's Headset to the entire University of Maryland Athletic Department. Really guys, great job. Not only did you manage to run your athletic department into the ground over the past ten years forcing the school to cut a number of non-revenue sports before splitting for the Big 10, you also currently find yourself the defendant in a $50+ million lawsuit in liquified damages. Despite the ACC having a banner year with four schools in the top 15 of the first BCS rankings, both the ACC divisions are behind the two Big 10 divisions according to the Sagarin rankings. In other words, Maryland will continue to get pounded in football but instead of getting trips to Virginia and North Carolina will get to frequent the incredible draw that Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State, and Nebraska have to offer. They traded teams to get beat down by while sacrificing rivalries as well as increasing cost of travel. Well done guys. All I have to say is good riddance and I doubt Wake ever plays you again in football. May you always remember the 34-10 absolute ass kicking you took on the way out.
As always let me know if you have any questions, concerns, comments, or hilarious tidbits to add to the column as we always listen here at Blogger So Dear. The Deacs are cruising over the past few weeks in football, the men's soccer team remains unbeaten in the ACC and sits atop the conference standings after a 4-3 win over Maryland, and basketball tips off in a couple of weeks. Get out and support the Olympic sports since the football team isn't back for three weeks and as always Go Deacs!