Thursday’s season opener against the Green Wave began, appropriately enough, with a deluge that at times appeared to threaten the 7 P.M. scheduled start. Even though the rain ended well before kickoff, the downpour seemed to continue throughout the game every time the Demon Deacon offense was on the field, appearing to threaten not the kickoff, but instead, the bowl hopes of a Wake Forest team projected to win 5.5 games on the season by Vegas oddsmakers.
Despite the Tulane threat, Wake managed to hold on down the stretch and win by a razor-thin 7-3 margin to get the season started off on the right foot. Let’s take a look at what went right, what went wrong, and attempt to gain some insight into what exactly the offensive game plan was entering the game.
For sanity’s sake, I’ll start with what went well on Thursday night. The defense came out ready to play with a game plan appropriately suited for Tulane’s option-style offense and limited the Green Wave to a meager 280 yards. Tulane kicked a field goal on the game’s first possession, extended by an inexcusable roughing the punter penalty after the D forced a punt after the first three plays, and despite piecing together a few steady drives, was unable to score again the rest of the game.
The defense’s performance was impressive in its own right without any further exploration beyond the traditional statistical measurements, but two specific areas stood out to me to make the performance even better: the offense Tulane employs and the time of possession gap which heavily favored the Green Wave. The latter, likely a partial product of the former - in addition to the offense’s inability to do absolutely anything for large portions of the game, forced the D to stay on the field for long stretches of time which was only exacerbated by first half injuries/minor tweaks entering the game to several players including Willie Yarbary, Jarboree Williams, Duke Ejiofor, and Marquel Lee.
Although Wake has played several games over the previous few years against option-style offenses (Army immediately comes to mind), it was unclear entering this one exactly what Tulane planned to do on offense and most option offenses vary pretty substantially from team to team. What we saw on Thursday was an option heavy attack with several vertical pass plays downfield which requires a defense (and especially the front seven) to remain disciplined, avoid over pursuing, remain in their lanes, and ensure they know exactly where the ball is at all times. Wake allowed only three plays over 20 yards for the game and Tulane QB Glen Cuiellette only completed 12 of 23 passes for 134 yards (28.2 QBR).
Tulane had some success running the football in spurts, but ended the game with only a 3.1 average on 47 carries. It is apparent through week one that the defense is the strength of this team and will need to be a unit the coaching staff can rely on week in and week out for the Deacs to remain competitive - especially when conference play starts which SURPRISE, it does in just six days.
On the defensive side I was primarily impressed by Jessie Bates and Julian Thomas-Jackson. Jessie Bates and Julian Thomas-Jackson were all over the place when they were on the field (Jackson was primarily in on third down packages but still managed two sacks and five tackles). Bates had a couple of plays where he closed down quickly while containing the outside run, making open field tackles which limited longer gains by the Tulane backs. These types of plays: third down stops up the middle by Jackson and open field stops by Bates, are the plays that must be made to prevent explosive gains and for these freshmen to rise the task on several occasions is a great sign for the team moving forward. I think Jackson may have played himself into some additional playing time, especially if some of the week one starters are banged up or not 100% next week.
Additionally, despite not being at 100% due to a nagging injury over the previous couple of weeks, Ejiofor showed why he’s a contender for postseason all-ACC honors by dominating the line of scrimmage when he was in the game.
In addition to the impressive play of the defense throughout this one, I was also impressed by the special teams all around with two exceptions: the aforementioned roughing the punter penalty committed by freshman Steven Claude and a couple of rough snaps on punts which forced Dom Maggio to make some athletic plays to prevent almost certain disaster, including one which would assuredly have been a safety in the first half.
Maggio, the heir to the Kinal throne at punter, got off to a fantastic start with 8 punts for a 40.2 average (note: he is on pace to break Kinal’s career NCAA punts record through one game - Kinal likely scoffs at this and says “hey rookie you’ve got 43 games to go”). Wake also blocked a field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter, a 43 yarder which would have put the Green Wave within one at 7-6. This turned out to be YUGE when Tulane drove downfield late in the game and was forced to go for the touchdown on fourth down instead of attempting a relatively short kick that would have given the Green Wave a 9-7 lead. These are the types of plays that turn games and as Wake fans know, it takes some luck to have a great season-long run even when the Deacs are good (2006, Chip Vaughn, Duke, destiny).
Okay...with the defense and special teams analysis done, it is with great regret that we must turn to the offense. I’ve never been one to sugar coat my opinions, either on here with the readers or in real life, so I’ll be honest: the offense was awful all the way around. There was poor execution at times, the game plan was absolutely horrid, and whatever it was the staff thought they were doing with the quarterback rotations was just an abysmal idea.
I’ll caveat the previous statement by providing that there is no question the coaching staff knows far more about football than I do and that they do this on a daily basis and have for the bulk of their careers. That being said, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that I have never, ever in my life seen any team attempt to do at quarterback what the Deacs did from the beginning of the game.
It would have been one thing if the named starter, John Wolford, had come out and struggled early on the first couple of possessions, necessitating a switch to Kendall Hinton to spark the offense. As it was, though, Wake alternated quarterbacks four times on four plays! Wolford started the game, Hinton came in for play two, Wolford was back out for play three, and Hinton was there for play four.
As Hinton astutely provided after the game: it’s tough to get into a rhythm at all when you’re not getting consistent playing time. While I’m all about innovation and creativity with the offense, especially when you’re trying to find a niche and exploit so-called “market inefficiencies” in the game, there’s certainly a reason why teams generally don’t employ the QB-switching model that Clawson used against Tulane and I think we got a pretty good indication of why that is throughout this one.
Even when the quarterback situation was somewhat more “normal,” as it may be, the playcalling at times was downright head scratching and I often thought we were watching Lobo guide the offense on some third down calls. Third and seven with Wolford in and a designed run? Success throwing the football with Wolford once he’s in a bit of a rhythm on a possession, what do you do? Back to back runs once inside Tulane territory to put the offense in a third and long, forcing a punt even though Wolford was hitting his stride.
The delayed handoffs and continued runs up the middle (I’m not an expert but I counted literally two outside runs) were maddening to watch as a fan and all I could think of on Saturday as I watched other games unfold was that Wake seems to continually run plays that I never EVER see anyone else run more than perhaps once or twice a game. And we run them a LOT.
Again, this can be a perk at times but I don’t think, based off of the Tulane game which is admittedly a smaller sample size, that this was generating much positive return on our investment. I’ve consistently been a Wolford supporter and believe that objectively, in the average offense, that he is the better quarterback than Hinton. After the Tulane game and seeing the frustrating performance yet again from the offensive line (seemingly unable to block anyone for longer than a second), I’m more of the mind that if we’re going to continue this offensive strategy we had going that we need Hinton out there more. If not for anything else, to at least prevent Wolford from sustaining serious long-term injuries due to getting repeatedly pummeled to the ground due to terrible play from the offensive front.
I could ramble on and on about the offense and what I think the Deacs could or should be doing, but the article is already pretty lengthy so I may break it up and put out a piece later in the week leading up to the Duke game with my thoughts specifically on the Hinton/Wolford dynamic. Too long didn’t read version: I’m not sure the QB “controversy” matters at all given who the offensive line is and gaining under 200 yards against basically anyone not in the top 10 is just blatantly unacceptable.
Quickly, things I liked: Matt Colburn’s running style and Cam Serigne’s route running and consistency in catching passes across the middle as tight end.
Things I didn’t like: the hands (or lack thereof) of almost every outside wide receiver as the Deacs went something like 0-8 on passes downfield (several of which were immensely catchable, even if slightly off by Wolford), the offensive line and everything about it (execution, scheme, two point stance), play calling at large.
That wraps up the first week of Couldn’t Be Happier. If there’s anything readers want to see a focus on moving forward or a particularly type of segment you would like to see included, let me know as this is always a fan-friendly and user-inclusive environment. Similarly if there are any questions, comments, or concerns let us know below as I’m sure others share your sentiment! Let’s keep this train rolling as we take on Duke next week in Durham at 3:30 in the conference opener and move to 2-0 to start the year and as always, go Deacs!