The Wake Forest Demon Deacons started off slow on Thursday night, but ultimately cruised to a 41-3 victory over the Elon Phoenix. While it was only one game against an FCS opponent, there is still a lot than can be learned from watching. Since this season is about growing, I thought it would make sense to compare the Elon game to last season's 23-7 victory over Gardner-Webb. What were the main differences?
For comparison purposes, I will point out that while Gardner-Webb won three more games than Elon last season (four to one), they had nearly identical Sagarin power ratings (35.45 to 35.26). While this year's Elon team may prove to be worse than last year's, this is about as fair of a comparison as we can ask for at this point in the season.
The 2014 Deacs racked up 387 yards of total offense, while the 2015 Deacs piled on 591 yards, which was the 3rd most in school history. Wake Forest was far more explosive, as John Wolford threw for 11.95 yards per pass attempt on Thursday, compared to just 7.65 a year ago. He also had three interceptions against Gardner-Webb, while he threw zero against Elon. Kendall Hinton was also impressive in his debut. While both quarterbacks played, Clawson did not "rotate" quarterbacks. The extent to which Hinton plays will be something I'm paying a lot of attention to this season.
Anyone who watched Wake Forest last year knows that the running game was brutal. Even against Gardner-Webb, Wake Forest managed just 96 yards on 36 carries, which is only 2.7 yards/carry. Against Elon, the Deacs averaged 4.8 yards/carry. Yes, John Wolford's 70-yard run certainly boosted that stat, but the running game was noticeably improved. It's still not where it needs to be, but it appears that the young players on the line and in the backfield will keep getting better.
The wide receivers this year are younger, but much more athletic. In 2014, Wake Forest lacked playmakers. Wake Forest had very little yards after catch. What happened? Clawson and his staff recruited a lot of skill position players and it paid off. True freshman Chuck Wade had 70 receiving yards and a touchdown, redshirt freshman Cortez Lewis had 64 receiving yards and a touchdown. Each also had a reception of at least 30 yards. Chuck Wade was someone who put up video game numbers in high school, but didn't seem to rise up the recruiting rankings for some reason. He appears to be a steal. Cam Serigne was his normal stud self, and graduate transfer KJ Brent displayed his very good hands. Two of the starting offensive linemen also came from Clawson recruiting classes.
The defensive statistics were outstanding in general. Wake only allowed 151 total yards of offense and six first downs, but one thing that stood out to me was the lack of a pass rush. Wake only had three tackles for loss, and zero sacks. That's very concerning, as Wake had five sacks against Gardner-Webb last season. If they fail to generate a pass rush, then they are going to have to rely even more on the secondary. Perhaps the blitz schemes were just vanilla for the FCS opponent. Either way, this will definitely be a story to watch throughout the year. They also failed to force a turnover, though it seemed obvious to me and everyone watching (except for the replay official) that Hunter Williams had an interception.
I thought Hunter Williams played very well, and was also impressed with cornerback Brad Watson and safety Cameron Glenn. Another observation was that true freshman cornerback Dionte Austin played. Coach Clawson said that he wanted to play one of the true freshmen cornerbacks, the other being Amari Henderson, so we will see if Henderson plays later in the year.
The Elon game went much better than I expected. I knew that Wake Forest would win, but I did not expect to see that level of offensive production. Next week, Wake Forest has a litmus test game when they travel to New York to take on Syracuse. I'm excited for that game, and I'm excited to watch these young players grow under Coach Clawson.