The wait is finally over! Football season is officially upon us, and the season opener against Utah State is just a few days away. To prepare for the Aggies, I am going to attempt to break down the match-up between the Utah State offense and our Demon Deacon defense. I briefly covered this in the Utah State overview, but now that we are closer to game day, and the depth charts for both teams are out there, I think we can get a little more in depth. These predictions could prove to be wildly inaccurate, as this is Utah State’s first game under a new(ish) coach and an offense with 9 new starters. Nevertheless, I am going to do my best.
The first thing to point out is that Utah State’s QB Jordan Love is one of the best in the nation. He finished last season completing 64% of his passes and threw 34 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. Per Les Johns, Dave Clawson has even stated that some NFL scouts think he’ll be the 3rd QB taken in the next NFL draft, right behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said NFL scouts are extremely high on Utah State QB Jordan Love and that he's likely to be the third QB off the board this year in the draft.— Les Johns (@Les_Johns) August 27, 2019
The Aggies are even making a Heisman push for Jordan Love.
Having one of the best QBs in the nation isn’t the end all, be all for a football team, however. After all, the Deacs did beat the 2nd QB picked in this year’s NFL draft 59-7 on his home field. So, let’s take a look at some of the other match-ups that we will see on Friday night.
The biggest question in this game will be whether or not the Deacs can get pressure on Love without having to blitz extra defenders. Given time, Love will absolutely pick the secondary apart, no matter how good our coverage is. The good news for Wake Forest is that Soph. LT Alfred Edwards is the only returning starter on the offensive line for USU (they graduated 6 offensive lineman last season). The rest of the line is composed of Jr. LG Ty Shaw, Jr. C Demytrick Ali’ifua, RS Fr. RG Karter Shaw, and RS Fr. RT Andy Koch. There is definitely some inexperience on the right side of that line, which is something the Deacs will no doubt try to exploit.
Going up against them on the Wake D-Line is RS Jr. DE Carlos Basham Jr., Soph. DT Dion Bergan Jr., RS Fr. DT Rondell Bothroyd, and RS Fr. DE JaCorey Johns. Needless to say, there is some inexperience on our side of the line as well. The Deacs will need to rely on Basham, who finished last season with 11 TFL and 4.5 sacks, to lead the way. If Wake Forest can keep Jordan Love from setting up a metaphorical lawn chair in the pocket, it will make things way easier for the secondary.
Speaking of the secondary, the Deacs should have a massive advantage in experience in that matchup. Outside of starting slot receiver Jordan Nathan (28 catches, 297 yards, 3 TD in 2018), the Aggies have just 1 other receiver on the entire roster who caught over 10 passes last season. Starting X-WR Savon Scarver caught just 9 passes last season for 156 yards and 2 TDs, while starting Z-WR Siaosi Mariner, a graduate transfer from Utah, caught 17 passes for 209 yards and 1 TD. Starting TE Caleb Repp, also a graduate transfer from Utah, played DE for the Utes last season and hasn’t caught a pass since his Freshman year (2 career catches, both for touchdowns—watch for him around the goal line).
They’ll be going up against a pretty good secondary that includes 2 of the most experienced corners in the ACC in Sr. Essang Bassey (15 PD, 1 Int last season) and RS Sr. Amari Henderson (10 PD last season). RS Jr. Luke Masterson (3 PD, 1 Int last season) will also likely be helping out in coverage from the linebacker position, due to his experience playing safety in the past. The Deacs are a little younger at the safety position with RS Soph. Coby Davis and Soph. Nasir Greer, but they should still have an overall advantage in the secondary. Of course, that advantage won’t mean much if Jordan Love can stand in the pocket for an eon and wait for someone to get open.
All that leaves is the Utah State running game. As I said in the preview, from everything I have seen, Gary Andersen loves to run the football (let me reiterate—they haven’t played yet, so I have no idea what his offense will look like this season). Starting RB Gerold Bright rushed for almost 900 yards and 10 TDs last season as the backup, so he is definitely the best offensive weapon the Aggies have outside of Jordan Love. The Deacon line-backing corps of Justin Strnad (105 tackles, 8.5 TFL), Ryan Smenda Jr. (22 tackles), and Luke Masterson (52 tackles) will have their work cut out stopping Bright from averaging 6.3 yards per carry as he did last season. They will likely be aided by the changes to the USU O-line as well as Carlos Basham Jr., who led the ACC in run stuffs last season.
This game is probably going to come down to the battle at the line of scrimmage and whose inexperience shows the most. If the Deacs can keep Utah State behind schedule and then get some semblance of a pass rush on passing downs, they will be in good shape. If the Aggies establish the run early on, to the point where they can start mixing in play action passes on favorable 2nd/3rd and short down situations, or they continually pick up 3rd and longs because Love can sit back in the pocket and wait comfortably until someone gets open, it could be a long night for the Wake Forest defense. The good news is: we only have to wait a few more days to find out what will happen.