The last time the Wake Forest football team saw the Black Knights, the Deacs managed to emerge with a 49-37 victory at BB&T Field in an offensive battle where neither defense was able to get stops when it really mattered. With the win Wake moved to 3-1 on the season and would go on to finish one game shy of a bowl berth at 5-7. Army fell to 0-3 and would continue their slide as they ultimately ended the season 2-10. The week after the trip to Winston, Army lost to FCS Stony Brook 23-3 at home while giving up 424 total yards.
Defensive coordinator Brian Knorr will almost certainly have his hands full again this year with the Black Knights' option attack, which looks to remove the focus from the quarterback and receivers to the backfield players. Army returns 17 starters from last year's squad, but did lose quarterback Trent Steelman to graduation. Football fans may remember Steelman from last year's Army-Navy game where Army lost in the waning seconds and Steelman was unable to hold back his emotions upon the realization that he, like most other recent Army football players, would never beat Navy.
This matchup will mark the 13th time Army and Wake Forest have played one another. Wake Forest currently holds a 8-4 record in the series and has won six in a row dating back to 1989. This will be Wake Forest's first trip to West Point since 1999 when the Deacs won 34-15 en route to a 7-5 record and an Aloha Bowl title.
Despite returning 17 starters overall, Army will be looking to replace their starting quarterback as they will be without Steelman for the first time in four years. Wake fans may remember backup quarterback Angel Santiago from last year who got some playing time after Steelman went down with an injury in the middle of the second half. Santiago, a junior, is currently in a battle for the starting spot with sophomore A.J. Schurr. Signs from the Army camp point towards Schurr being the starter.
Whoever takes over the role of quarterback for the Black Knights will be fortunate to inherit an offense which led the nation in rushing yards last year with 369.8 yards per game on the ground. While a large reason for this is Army's lack of a passing offense (they only attempted six passes total against the Deacs last year), another big part of the success stems from the unique option offense they run. The guy who is likely to get most of the carries is senior Raymond Maples who is coming off a season where he gained 1,215 yards. Maples had an astonishing 223 carries last year and is likely to be a workhorse again for the Black Knights who will almost certainly pound the ball on the ground for 90% of their offensive snaps.
Another guy responsible for Army's success on the ground is Larry Dixon, who features as the starting fullback and gained 839 yards last year while being the go-to guy for short yardage situations. If the offensive line can improve from last year, Army's backfield could really provide an offensive spark for the team in general. The line returns just 26 career starts from last year's squad, but both guys who return on the right side of the line (Michael Kime and Stephen Shumaker) have at least one full season of starts at their position.
Since the Black Knights don't throw the ball much, the receivers are frequently tasked with the job of blocking their corners off the line and running short crossing and slant routes when a pass option is called. Army does return ten of the eleven players who caught a pass last year, led by Chevaughn Lawrence and Patrick Laird who both caught 10+ passes while boasting 6'3" frames built for providing necessary blocking on the outside.
Last year, Army's offense really was the bright spot for the team as they averaged 25.3 points a game (only 84th in the country) and an adjusted 30.0 points per game (good enough for 53rd in the country). For the team to improve at all from a 2-10 record though the team will need to continue their offensive output and improve drastically upon a defense which was one of the worst in the country - giving up an astonishing 37 points a game and 41.3 adjusted points per game (last in the nation).
To be completely honest about Army's defense in 2012, it was brutal. They allowed at least 21 points in every single game except the finale against Navy (a 17-13 loss), and at least 40 points in a shocking five games. In the game last year against Wake Forest, the Deacons managed to accrue 517 yards including a 12 reception, 153 yard performance by rising senior Michael Campanaro.
On the bright side, Army returns nearly everybody from their defensive line from the 2012 season. The only departure was senior Zach Watts and the team brings back twelve guys who played in at least five games. The line will be led by junior Robert Kough who recorded 32 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Both Kough and fellow starter at defensive tackle Richard Glover weigh in under 250 pounds. As Wake fans know though this has the potential to be a tremendous opportunity as Nikita Whitlock has shown that smaller guys can split through the offensive line and get into the backfield at will with the right skill set. The bad news for Army is that with a 4-3 defense and two undersized offensive linemen, they lack the presence a lot of the time to blow up holes in the front to get into the backfield. This will be only further exacerbated this year as the Black Knights lose their star linebacker Nate Combs to graduation.
Combs recorded 47.5 tackles over ten games last year, good enough for fourth on the team. Combs also contributed six sacks, while forcing three fumbles, recovering three fumbles, breaking up four passes and recording one interception. Combs also got into the backfield frequently and finished the year with 12 tackles for loss, tops on the team. Army will look for linebackers Zachary Williams, Corey Watts, and Stephen Ricciardi to step up and fill the void that Combs leaves in the middle of the defense.
With Combs departure, the leader of the defense looks to be junior Geoffery Bacon at free safety. Bacon had an astonishing 100.5 tackles last year, tops on the team, and is likely the best defender that Army has had in some time. Bacon will look to shore up the Army defense which forced only 14 turnovers last year. which ranked 111th in the nation. He played most of the 2012 season beside Combs at linebacker but will look to shift to the free safety positio for the 2013 season. Bacon will be joined in the secondary by Brandon Fusilier-Jeffires, who recorded 66.5 tackles (second on the team), Chris Carnegie, and Justin Trimble. This is an experienced corps and the pass defense should certainly fare better this year than over the past couple of seasons where the team has struggled to stop other team's quarterbacks.
Army returns their starting punter, starting placekicker, and every single player who returned a single punt or kickoff from last season. They do however lose Eric Osteen who kicked off for the Black Knights. Sophomore kicker Dan Grochowski went 24-27 on XPs and 10-16 on field goals last year. Special teams, at least in theory, should be one of the stronger aspects of Army's tema this season.
This will mark the fifth season for head coach Rich Ellerson, who took Army to a bowl game in his second season. The goodwill from Army fans may be running out this season and with a bad performance the team might be looking to make a change at the helm. Ellerson's seat will certainly get hotter as the season progresses, particularly if they lose again to rival Navy for the 12th consecutive time. Ellerson enters the season with a 17-31 record with the Black Knights. The team did not make any changes to coordinators and there appeared to be a very limited shakeup with the staff at all entering the 2013 season.
For a more in-depth analysis, check out Bill Connelly's article here where he has done a fantastic job in his annual preview of each college football team. The bottom line for this year's Army team is that they need to drastically improve on defense. In all honesty it's difficult to see a situation where they do so and because of this it is likely that Army has a very difficult season again this year. Wake has struggled with the option offense in the past though and this game should be a good one since it's on Army's home turf. This is a great road game for Wake fans to go to if they have never been to West Point before. Army has a beautiful campus and the stadium is nestled up on the Hudson River where there is a beautiful panoramic view from the stands.
If Army's offensive line can provide a good push up front, the team should continue to rack up ridiculous numbers on the ground, but they will continue to be hindered by an abysmal defense. Army's dream season would be to sneak into a bowl at 6-6 but I just don't see that happening. Army is likely to finish 2-10 or 3-9 again this season and the only game where you should be able to pencil in a win is the opener against Morgan State. I say "should" because as mentioned earlier, Army fell to FCS school Stony Brook last year by three touchdowns. This is a very important game for Wake Forest and their bowl hopes so Wake will need to have their full attention on the Black Knights and not be tripped up by an Army team looking to snap a six game losing streak against the Deacs.
Editor's Note: The next installment of the season preview series should be out at the beginning of next week as Robert Reinhard takes a look at game five for the Deacons, a difficult battle in Death Valley against the Clemson Tigers