The Wake Forest Demon Deacons will take on the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on ESPNU in what will be the 97th meeting between the two programs. Wake Forest is 1-0, but coming off an uninspiring 7-3 victory over Tulane. Meanwhile, Duke blew out N.C. Central 49-6. What can we expect to see in Durham on Saturday?
Wake Forest on Offense
To say that Wake Forest fans were disappointed with Wake’s offensive performance against Tulane would be a dramatic understatement. What was supposed to be a much improved offense, ended up totaling just 175 yards and 7 points. Tulane had an okay front seven, but this was by and large an unacceptable performance.
Duke finished the 2015 season with the 53rd best defense, according to S&P+. Specifically, they were 40th against the rush, but just 104th against the pass. I expect their rush defense to worsen, however, as they lost linebacker Dwayne Norman and safety Jeremy Cash. The duo combined for 26.5 tackles for loss, and could have caused major problems for Wake’s rushing attack.
Their secondary is experienced with corners DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders, and those two are aggressive, as they combined for 15 pass break ups last season. The main reason that I see for the subpar pass defense is the lack of a pass rush that is generated by their front 7. Duke had 5 sacks against N.C. Central, but Central is a very inferior opponent, and Duke is replacing 3 starters from last year’s defensive line. Wake Forest’s offensive line struggled to generate a push against Tulane, but they did allow just one sack. If the offensive line can give John Wolford and Kendall Hinton adequate time to throw, then Wake’s receivers should be able to make Duke pay.
I will make zero promises about what Wake’s offense will do, but they are more than capable of moving the ball against Duke. Wake put up 450 yards of total offense against Duke last November, 338 of which came through the air.
Wake Forest on Defense
Unlike Wake’s offense, Wake’s defense was sensational against Tulane. They allowed just 280 yards, or 4 yards/play. I cannot say enough positive things about the performance of safety Jessie Bates and Julian Thomas-Jackson. Bates led the team in tackles, and consistently flew around the field to make open-field tackles. Thomas-Jackson played just 11 snaps against Tulane, but he still found a way to make 2 sacks and force a fumble. His playing time should increase this week.
Duke’s signal caller is redshirt freshman Daniel Jones. He’s an interesting case because he was unrated by Rivals coming out of high school, but was impressive in week one against N.C. Central. He was 10-15 for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also ran twice for 28 yards and a score. He’s a huge wild card in this game and could really best tested if players like Duke Ejiofor and Julian Thomas-Jackson can generate a pass rush.
Duke’s best back is Jela Duncan, who actually made his college decision between Wake Forest and Duke. He averaged nearly 7 yards/carry last year, and ran for 121 yards against N.C. Central. He had a 50-yard score last week, so containment will be huge. If he can provide a consistent rushing attack, then that will reduce the amount that defensive coordinator Mike Elko can dial up blitzes against Daniel Jones. Duke’s offensive line allowed just one sack against Central, but it’s difficult to evaluate that statistic. They had a very good last year in terms of advanced metrics, but did lose Matt Skura, who was a 1st-team All-ACC center, and Lucas Patrick, who had 26 career starts.
The Blue Devils lost McMcaffrey from last year’s team, so I am expecting T.J. Rahming to see an increase in targets. Jonathan Lloyd led the team with 62 receiving yards, 55 of which came from a single touchdown catch. Lloyd was a quarterback in high school, but Duke converted him to receiver. Brad Watson and Dionte Austin will need to have good games, and hopefully Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey can provide good depth.
Wake’s defense should be fine if they can avoid giving up big plays. If Wake’s defense can bend, but not break, then that will only give Daniel Jones more opportunities to make a mistake.
Special teams could be an advantage for Wake. Right now, it’s a major question mark for the Blue Devils, and in a tight game it could be very relevant. They lost Ross Martin, who was one of the best kickers in the country, and Will Monday, who was a very good punter (he’s not Kinal though). Mike Weaver is a reliable kicker from inside of 40 yards. He made 10 of 12 from inside 40 yards last year, but was just 1-6 on kicks greater than 40 yards. Meanwhile, Dom Maggio is a total stud. #PunterU
I do not believe it’s hyperbole to say that this game is the biggest game of Dave Clawson’s tenure at Wake. A win would be absolutely massive. It would represent significant progress in year three of the rebuild, and could be a major boost to recruiting. In addition to those benefits that are harder to quantify, a win would do wonders for Wake’s bowl chances. Would would be sitting a 2-0, with home games remaining against Delaware, Army, Virginia, Syracuse, and Boston College. The Deacs also still have winnable road games remaining against Indiana and N.C. State. This isn’t a must win, but it’s an outstanding opportunity, and I’m very intrigued to see what happens on Saturday afternoon.