The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (5-3) will host the Virginia Cavaliers (2-6) this Saturday at 3 p.m. ET at BB&T Field on the ACC Network. In anticipation of the game, we chatted with Caroline Darney of Streaking The Lawn.
Blogger So Dear (BSD): The Bronco Mendenhall era got off to a rough start with a 20-37 loss to Richmond, but recently lost to Louisville by just 7 points. What has led to the improvement over that time?
Streaking The Lawn (STL): There are a bunch of improvements from that first week disaster to last week's heartbreak. The biggest thing overall that I can say has affected the performance of the team is their familiarity with both the offense and defense. Coach Mendenhall brought an 'air raid' offense and a more complicated 3-4 defense that our players have not only had to learn and execute, but have had to fit into as well.
Defensively, they have simplified the schemes from game one, which has allowed players to become more comfortable and confident in their abilities. Young players like Jordan Mack, Juan Thornhill, and Kareem Gibson have really started to impress, as more experienced leaders like Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding - who are one and two in the ACC in tackles - are really starting to excel.
On offense, Kurt Benkert has improved in the QB role (despite a six-quarter lull there against Pitt and UNC). He's got a really nice touch on the ball and the ability to evade or scramble as needed. The receiving corps is versatile with a lot of options, and running backs Smoke Mizzell and Albert Reid - while not a focus of the offense - are effective rushing (Smoke is an all-purpose guy...rushing and receiving threat).
BSD: Virginia sits at 2-6. How does that record compare to preseason expectations?
STL: Eh, not great, but the biggest difference are the early losses that I had guessed would be wins (Richmond, UConn). If we play both of those games again now, I think Virginia wins them both easily, but unfortunately that's not the way that football works. The games against Pitt and UNC were frustrating because I thought we had a chance in those, but I think the biggest thing is that fans wanted to see improvement over the course of the season, and I think that's happening. I would have loved a bowl game (which is mathematically still possible), but I think the forward trajectory of the team is very positive and Mendenhall is instilling a scheme that will lead to continued success in the future.
BSD: What is Virginia's biggest strength and what is Virginia's biggest weakness?
STL: Is it bad that for strength I wanted to talk about how awesome our punter Nick Conte is? Yeah? What if I tell you he leads the conference in punts with an average punt distance of 45.2 yards? Ok, I'm going to go with our linebackers, namely Kiser. As I mentioned, he is leading the ACC with 91 total tackles. Additionally, he is the lone ACC rep in the semifinalists for the Butkus Award. He's been just a monster this season. I've also been impressed with Mizell and Olamide Zacchaeus offensively as they have proven to be very versatile.
As far as weakness, I'm going to say pass defense. I have been impressed with Thornhill and some of the young guys at CB, but we are so depleted at the position due to injury that it's tough. There have been a lot of third and long pass plays given up, and I'm still not ready to talk about Louisville (although he was actually in a really good defensive position and made a hell of a play on the ball...it was just an amazing pass/catch).
Oh, and our kicking game is what you would call "non existent".
BSD: Which player or unit do you think is the biggest x-factor in this game?
STL: I'm going to go with Benkert. His performance against Louisville was more along the lines of what we saw against Central Michigan and Duke and the first half Pitt, but the interceptions have concerned me. With the way Wake has forced turnovers with eight forced fumbles and nine interceptions, it'll be crucial for Virginia to have good ball security and make good decisions. The offensive line is going to be grouped in with Benkert as he can scramble a little early, so giving him solid protection up front will be necessary for the Hoos.
BSD: Finally, let's get a prediction in this one. Who wins?
STL: I think this one will be close, but Virginia will pick up a road win 28-24.