As far as weather was concerned, Saturday night in Winston-Salem was absolutely miserable. The Wake Forest football team and group of fans still gathered when the scoreboard clock hit 0:00 in the 4th quarter with Wake holding a 28-9 lead didn’t care. For the first time since the 2006 season the Demon Deacons are 5-1 and now sit just one win away from securing bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.
Wake opened the game as a slight favorite and with one consistent unknown throughout the week - what role Hurricane Matthew and its remnants would play during Saturday night’s contest - many Deacon fans were concerned about what Coach Clawson and company would bring to the table. What the coaching staff brought was a conservative yet consistent approach on offense and a defensive scheme that mixed up blitzes, moved the front seven around to confuse the Syracuse offensive line, and a heavy dose of Marquel Lee.
There was plenty to like about what Wake attempted to do on offense, and for the most part succeeded at. For the first time in what seems like decades, the Demon Deacon offensive line has been able to control the line of scrimmage on a regular basis and the dividend is the steady rush attack Wake has brought through the first half of the season. This attack was on fully display again on Saturday night as the Deacs had a 100 yard rusher for the fourth time in six games, this time freshman Cade Carney in his first game since suffering a knee injury in practice following the Duke win.
Carney was impressive throughout the night, carrying the ball 29 times for 104 yards and a touchdown. Not only was his statline impressive, but the way he got his stats - falling forward for extra yards at the end of nearly every play, making the first guy to him miss to avoid negative rush plays, and barreling over guys in the open field frequently making defenders look silly - was fun to watch especially for a freshman who still has plenty to learn about running the football at the college level. To borrow an appropriate phrase from Takeo Spikes, who was calling the game on tv, Cade runs HARD and there is absolutely no question about it.
I’m a firm believer that in order to successfully pass the ball with any consistency, most teams need to establish the run to force defenses to bring an extra guy or two into the box making it easier for the quarterback to spread the defense out. Wake’s offensive scheme made running the ball a priority and its ability to do so allowed quarterback John Wolford to settle into more of a “game manager” role particularly after a couple hits he took the third quarter which appeared to cause some shoulder pain or injury which openly bothered him at times in the second half.
Wolford’s passing line alone, 13-22 for 140 yards and a touchdown, is certainly not anything to write home about, but his ability to move the ball with his legs which included an impressive 37 yard touchdown scamper where he showed elusive speed, indicated yet again that he is a dual threat quarterback. It may be easy to attempt to compartmentalize the two quarterbacks Wake has seen this year in John Wolford and Kendall Hinton as the passing option and the rushing option, but both Wolford and Hinton to their credit have done a good job debunking these explicit guidelines and shown that both guys are able to get it done in ways that the fan base might not traditionally expect.
Wolford didn’t just show “quarterback speed” or appear to be “deceptively quick” or “fast” on his touchdown run. No. He was fast. He identified his blockers downfield as he took off, saw his best angle to get to the edge and put on the burners to easily slide into the end zone to put the Deacs up 14-9 right before the half. The Deacs never looked back. This type of explosive play, in addition to plays like the defensive touchdown which I’ll touch on later, are the types that Wake has sorely missed over the past several years that good Wake football teams have relied on to regularly knock off opponents.
While the offense provided, for the most part, a steady hand for this Demon Deacon team, the defense was dominant keeping the highly-vaunted Syracuse aerial attack grounded for for long stretches of the game. There is no doubt that the windy, rainy conditions hindered Syracuse’s ability to do exactly what they wanted to do with the football at all times, but quite frankly the way the defensive front consistently brought pressure throughout the contest, it’s no certainty that quarterback Eric Dungey would have been able to get the ball to his able stable of wide receivers even in the best of conditions.
Dungey went a paltry 16 for 25 for 156 yards and an interception for a pitiful 19.2 QBR (comparatively, despite numbers that looked similar, Wolford’s QB performance netted him a 77 QBR on the 100-point ESPN scale). Wideout Amba Etta-Tawo, who had gained at least 103 yards in each of the first five games of the season, was held to 36 yards on just four catches.
While Syracuse’s final offensive output totaled 326 yards, finishing only four yards behind Wake’s 330, the Orange gained 106 of those yards on the final two drives of the game - one of which was ended by a scoop and score that tied this one up in a bow for the Deacs while the other was ended by the game’s conclusion. So when Syracuse got the ball back, down 21-9 with four minutes left, they had totaled just 220 yards overall against the Wake D. That is damn impressive for a unit who struggled for most of the game to contain the pass over the last two weeks against Indiana and N.C. State.
One critical piece of the Wake defense who provided an absolutely dominant performance was linebacker Marquel Lee. Lee, who earned ACC Linebacker of the Week honors for his game, totaled 15 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, and two sacks. the 5.5 tackles for loss was just half a tackle shy of the best one-game Wake Forest performance ever and Lee appeared to be involved in just about every play you could possibly imagine as he was constantly in the backfield tormenting Dungey. Lee was the cog for the defense this week and along with Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates has put on an unbelievable single-game solo performance to help push this Wake team to a win. Kudos to Lee - watching you patrol, read, react, and dominate out there for the entire stretch of the game was about as much fun as you’re ever going to have as a sports fan.
One last thing to note about the defense is the performance on third downs and its ability to secure critical stops to force Syracuse to punt the ball. The Orange went 5-16 on third down, a 31.25% conversion rate. This is the lowest rate the Wake D has forced all year and the second lowest rate the Orange had.
Moving away from serious analysis of the game for a second and talking about something that may have been far more serious if the game hadn’t unfolded the way it did: the safety. If you missed the game, Wake was down 2-0 after their first possession of the game because of an errant snap on a punt which went thirty five yards backwards and almost resulted in an Orange touchdown. I don’t mean this to be critical of anyone, but I rewound the snap about ten times and honestly couldn’t stop laughing about the play. The conditions were terrible, the ball was undoubtedly slippery, the wind made it tough to gauge where to put the snap, but without question this snap was about as bad as one I’ve ever seen and Dom Maggio did everything he could just to hunt this bad boy down and try to prevent the surefire Orange touchdown. Ultimately, the safety did not cost the Deacs (other than a -40 hit to the total offense, which at the end of the day doesn’t matter since we count wins for bowls and not yardage) but it’s worth pointing out that this was a rather ignominious start to the game.
So, in other news, Wake is 5-1 now in football which is pretty nuts. I don’t claim to speak for the staff or fanbase, but I don’t think much of anyone expected the Deacs to be 5-1 through six games. My final pick was for Wake to sneak into a bowl with a 6-6 record and use this year as a building block for next season. I don’t believe the goals have changed for the Deacs per se - a bowl game is still the realistic goal particularly given the power in the top of the Atlantic - but Wake now gets to travel to Tallahassee for a meaningful game and has an opportunity to secure a better bowl game than perhaps any Wake fan would have expected.
Clawson has shown an ability to turn around programs and what he has been able to accomplish at Wake so far this season speaks a lot to how his method and style translates to the higher echelons of the FBS level. Wake still has plenty of room to grow, but the 2016 season has thus far been a resounding success and the only thing you can do is beat the teams on your schedule and put yourself into position to play in meaningful games down the stretch. Wake may be a huge underdog on Saturday going into Tallahassee to face off against a ranked and talented Florida State team, but they at least have an opportunity to make a big statement on national television and damn it feels good.
If you have any questions, comments, or concerns let us know. What did you like about this week, didn’t like, what do you want to see next week, what do you expect to see. Let us know whatever you want below and as always, go Deacs!