The Wake Forest Demon Deacons head to Chapel Hill this Saturday to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. The Deacs are coming off of a 3-0 road victory over Boston College, while the Tar Heels were idle last week. The Vegas prognosticators had an opening line of Carolina -13.5, but the Heels are now favored by 17 points. What can this Wake Forest team do to beat the Tar Heels and move to 2-2 in the ACC?
There's no denying that the hiring of Gene Chizik as the team's defensive coordinator has been a very good move for the Tar Heels. Last season, Carolina gave up a whopping 39.0 points per contest. This year, that number is down to 18 per game. While that number might be slightly deflated (insert overused Patriots joke here) due to Delaware and NC A&T being 40% of the team's games, that's still a remarkable improvement. Still, the team's defense has weaknesses.
The Carolina defense allows 4.85 yards/carry, and even allowed Delaware to rush for 5.69 yards/attempt. They have a bottom 15 rush defense in the country, according to Rushing S&P+. This is dictated by them allowing opposing offenses to "stay on schedule" more than 50% of the time when they run the ball. On the flip side, they have the 30th best defense at limiting explosive run plays. This is classic "bend, but don't break." Their passing defense has a similar philosophy. They will allow underneath passes, but teams are typically unsuccessful trying to beat them over-the-top.
Wake Forest must get both Tyler Bell and Matt Colburn going in this contest. It will allow Wake Forest to chew the clock, shorten the game, and increase the team's chances of winning. If Kendall Hinton plays quarterback, that's also an additional dynamic that Carolina will probably struggle to defend.
Limiting North Carolina's Explosive Plays
This is easier said than done. The Tar Heels are top 20 nationally in passing success rate, and top 30 nationally in rushing success rate. They stay on schedule. Wake Forest's defense is top 30 nationally in passing success rate and top 50 nationally in rushing success rate. However, the Deacs are 92nd in passing explosiveness defense. The Heels are probably going to do a decent job of moving the ball, but the defense has the ensure that those yards don't come in huge chunks. Carolina has respectable offensive explosiveness, but that is its relative weakness. On passing downs, they struggle. Wake Forest has to win the early downs, and force Carolina into passing situations.
It's only fitting with all-world punter Alex Kinal on the Wake Forest team that punting get mentioned in this piece. Based on the numbers, this is a battle that Wake Forest must win in order to win the game. Alex Kinal is one of the best punters in the country. He has an average of 43.5 yards, and 5/6 of his punts are either fair caught or inside the 20 yard-line. He truly flips the field.
Meanwhile, North Carolina has an excellent punter returner in Ryan Switzer. While his teammates don't always catch him, the punt coverage team doesn't always either. He's averaging 18 yards/punt return. North Carolina, on the other hand, is averaging less than 35 yards/punt. Wake must limit Switzer, and must win on special teams in order to win this game.
Wake Forest has a difficult challenge ahead of them, but this contest is winnable. The Deacs will have to play a very fundamentally sound game that focuses on ball control, limiting explosive plays, and winning the special teams battle.