It's September, y'all. As I'm resisting the early creep of pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin beers, as I cling to the end of summer with every fiber of my being, the time has come at last for a new season of Demon Deacon football. The freshman class (of 2020...) opened the gate, Wake began selling alcohol in the stands, and the Deacs started off the 2016 football season off with a home victory, 7-3.
As the rain cleared away, and Wake Forest won the toss, Mike Weaver got the season underway, kicking off to the Green Wave. New Tulane head coach Willie Fritz showed his option look early, and the Deacon defense was up to the task. Good news for Deacon fans, as Duke Ejiofor was healthy enough to start. Wake starting the season on a three and out defensively felt good. On the next play, though, the effort was negated with a roughing the kicker penalty on the ensuing punt. Tulane immediately capitalized on the Deacon mistake with a big 22 yard rush, bringing Tulane quickly into field goal range. Tulane showed one, two, and even three backs in the backfield on the opening drive alone, but Duke Ejiofor was able to sniff out a draw and pick up a big sack. The Wave opted to kick a field goal from 41 yards, getting on the board first, 3-0.
The Deacs responded with a nice 30 yard Steven Claude return, and John Wolford trotted out for the opening snap. Cade Carney was the feature back in the opening series as Coach Dave Clawson showed both quarterbacks would play significant minutes, alternating them nearly every other snap. Carney was unable to break a big run, but he showed his power moving the line of scrimmage and legged out extra yards well. Still, the offensive line let the Deacs down as Wolford was sacked on a pedestrian three man rush, forced to punt two plays later. The silver lining of the poor opening drive was freshman punter Dom Maggio who downed a 51 yard punt on the 1 yard line.
Through the first 10+ minutes of the season it looked a lot like last year. Wake's offense struggled, but its special teams and defense kept them in the game. Wake took over after a second three-and-out near midfield, with three minutes and change left in the first quarter. On third and long, Wolford took to the ground and rushed for the first down, but it was negated by yet another penalty. Matt Colburn's first snap on offense was a good one, though, and managed to pick up the first down on the following play with a great catch and run. Colburn's next play was a great seven yard run, and third and short was a designed keeper for Hinton who kept the drive alive. Mixing tempo, quarterbacks, and run/pass was the only thing keeping Tulane on their heels as the offense otherwise looked bland and rusty as the first quarter came to an end.
The first play of the second quarter saw Hinton carry inside the 5 yard line, bringing up 3rd and 2. The Deacs then picked up 1st and goal and Hinton walked his way in for the first touchdown of the young season.
Tulane responded with an excellent drive, tiring out the Deacon defense with a lot of different looks and complex runs. The first pressure of the half, a pair of safety blitzes, backfired heavily as Tulane easily picked up solid yardage with delayed runs. Most of the plays were slow developing runs or quick screens. Wake had a few players shaken up on the drive, of more worrying note than the Green Wave charging down the field at will. Two Tulane penalties were the only things able to stop their drive, which chewed clock and kept the defense on the field for a long time.
Kendall Hinton came out for the next offensive drive and was promptly sacked after the playcalling was too transparent to fool the Tulane rush. Indeed, the problems of the two quarterback system showed themselves quickly on the drive as the Deacs were unable to move the ball at all. Maggio followed up a great first career punt with a potential points saving catch on an awful snap, but could only manage a 24 yard punt, and Tulane was back in business offensively.
Tulane gave another QB a look, and he took three keepers for positive yards, but the Deacon defense was up to the task. Tulane went for it on fourth and 5 from the 29 yard line, and Wake's 4-2-5 was stingy again, turning the Wave over on downs.
Cam Serigne got his first reception of the season, stretching his streak of games with a reception to 25 straight. Then he got his second one as Wake picked up the tempo with Wolford behind the line. Wolford picked up on the momentum the defense gave him, hitting on four consecutive passes before the drive stalled out near the Tulane 40. Dom Maggio softly landed the ball inside the ten, as Wake won the field position battle to end the half.
All things considered, the first half was as frustrating and troubling as last season was for the Deacs. There were some promising runs from Colburn, Hinton, and Carney. There were some good looking throws from Wolford. The defense looked great up front and a bit rusty in the secondary. Wake's coaching staff played extremely conservatively, if not downright scared. They did manage to play a lot of guys, but the playcalls weren't new, the team wasn't focused and committed too many penalties, and it just looked like the first game of the season.
Wake started the second half out with the ball, and John Wolford took the first snap. Cade Carney ran for six on his fourth carry of the night, finding a seam and cutting outside. Carney then picked up the first down on the next play on a handoff from Hinton. The quarterbacks traded snaps again after the effective runs, but couldn't pick up another first between them.
One of the bright spots of the game was certainly the hard hitting secondary from the Demon Deacons. The tackling was also strong in the open field and at the line. Tulane's crafty offense negated pressure when Wake brought it, but wasn't able to break many big plays after the 22-yarder in the first half. Their first drive of the second half ended with a big sack near midfield.
The first great playcall of the game for the Deacs ended with a drop on a long play action pass to Claude, but Serigne was able to pick up yardage on the next play. Leaving Wolford in for the entire series was the ticket, as he connected with his receivers and found his rhythm again. Yet another drive ended in a punt for the Deacs, though, as they were unable to pick up a 3rd and 1 on the ground. Two drops from veteran wide receivers didn't help.
The Green Wave finally got their big play with a long QB keeper, a 25 yard run stopped with a touchdown-saving tackle by Cameron Glenn. The Deacon defense responded in a big way with consecutive sacks. The Deacs nearly forced a fumble, but the ruling on the field was an incomplete pass, and the Deacs were able to come up with a stop on the following 3rd and long.
Kendall Hinton got the call on the next drive, and was unable to move the ball, hindered by a penalty and more transparent playcalls. When two tight ends are on the field with Hinton, the calls were really easy for Tulane to figure out. When Hinton did throw, his arm looked very inaccurate, but the offensive line was unable to give him any time to set his feet and throw well.
As the clock wound down on the third quarter, Tulane showed Wake how to move the chains on offense. For the second time in the game, the Green Wave moved deep into Wake Forest territory. Their offense started to look a lot more dynamic and the Wake defensive line started to look tired. Eventually they bailed out the offense again with a huge sack, forcing a field goal attempt. Wake blocked the field goal, and it would be enough to hold off Tulane for the rest of the game, which finished 7-3.
That the final nine minutes were mostly not noteworthy is a sad commentary on this first game. Tulane took shots downfield (and even completed a 46 yard throw on a broken play), and Wake kept their attack bottled up. Tulane dominated the time of possession stat, but couldn't do enough to get on the board. If Tulane hadn't had some costly penalties, the game could well have been even worse.
This time of year, I look forward the air cooling down, to darker beers and the return of Wake sports. There's something symbolic about the days getting shorter, the leaves starting to wither away, and another year of Demon Deacon football testing our collective fan mettle. This measly win was a harsh reminder that Wake still has a long way to go in revenue sports, whether you're a long time true believer or a long time doubter. The game was harder to watch than the HP commercial about scalability that kept (ironically) freezing.
My questions are simple. Where are the dives or counters or options other than read? Where are the screens or play action passes or out throws? Why is the playbook still so limited in year three for Wolford? Beating Tulane 7-3 at home is simply an unacceptable result. At this point, coach Clawson knows that better than me or any other fan. He knows the offense can't continue to be this bad; it needs to trend up like it did from year 1 to year 2. I'm already in midseason beer drinking form; I'm willing to chalk up this ugly game to early season rust and some over-respectful coaching.