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Preview: No. 1 Wake Forest Faces No. 3 Clemson

The Deacs have looked unstoppable to start the season, but they have to travel to face their toughest test yet.

Photo by Andy Mead/ISI Photos/Getty Images

At 7:00 PM tonight, the Deacs travel to Historic Riggs Field to face the No. 3 Clemson Tigers in a battle between two of the top teams in the ACC and the country. The Demon Deacons will travel to South Carolina with a 3-0-0 record and the nation’s top ranking, while the Tigers sport a 2-1-0 record and the nation’s third ranking. Wake is coming off of a dominant 3-0 victory over UAB at Spry Stadium three days ago, while Clemson lost on the road Friday night in Chapel Hill on a last second goal, giving UNC a resumé boosting 1-0 victory at home.

The Matchup

When these two teams meet, it always seems to be in games with big implications for the national rankings. This is the 7th time Wake has faced the Tigers while holding the top ranking, and the 3rd time they have played when both teams have been in the top 5. Wake holds a 23-18-7 series advantage over the Tigers, but Clemson have not lost a home game to any team in their last 18 tries. Mike Noonan’s side also have not dropped back to back games since 2018 when they went on a 4 game losing skid with two losses in double overtime. The most recent encounter between these two teams was a thriller in Winston-Salem that Wake was able to win, with a late Justin McMaster goal evening the score at 2-2 before Aristotle Zarris converted an OT penalty to win the game. Clemson will surely be looking for revenge for that collapse and to avoid a big slide down the rankings with another loss.

The Tactics

Mike Noonan’s Tigers are one of the most energetic teams in the country. They line up in a 4-3-3 and press high up the field with incredible intensity, which Wake struggled with this throughout most of the game last year, with the Deacs left totally incapable of playing out of defense. Going forward, the Tigers are able to play both directly and with tight passing play, taking advantage of the hold up play of Kimarni Smith and their midfielders’ excellent ball control and passing. They try to create overloads on whichever side of the field has the ball, and operate with a lot of positional fluidity when going forward. In the game against UNC, they struggled to create these overloads because of the numbers that the Tar Heels were defending with and, to be fair to UNC, the quality of their defenders. The weakest point of Clemson’s team is its backline. While they are generally a defensively competent unit with some downright excellent players included, they are prone to making some bad turnovers in their own end that can lead to chances. While UNC were not able to punish these errors throughout most of the game, mostly because they weren’t committing players forward, if Wake is able to force these mistakes they could be much more dangerous. The Tigers also look like a shaky team on set pieces, as the goal they gave up was on a free kick. UNC were able to find some good looks from set plays throughout the game even before their goal, so that is something to look out for. Last year’s game was ultimately decided by some late Clemson mistakes, and if the Deacs are able to exploit them again, it could be another great night for Bobby Muuss’ team.

Ones to Watch Out For:

Clemson:

#20 Philip Mayaka (Central Midfielder, Sophomore): A player like Mayaka is worth his weight in gold. Every coach would kill to have a player like him in their team. He’s excellent defensively, especially in his ability to read passes and force turnovers. He is a solid passer and has an excellent mind for the game. He is not large in stature but he knows how to put his frame to use to physically overpower other players and his pace is well above average. Combine that with an engine that never seems to run out of gas and you have one of the best midfielders in today’s college game.

#11 Grayson Barber (Winger/Forward, Junior): Barber is one of those players who does the little things so well. He has played in all three of the forward positions for Clemson and has looked strong in each one. He is a quick player and always seems to do the right things going forward. He is very solid in tight spaces, always seeming to get the ball out of his feet to the right guy in the right spot. He’s only registered one assist this season, but he has looked like an excellent creative outlet for Clemson. And all of this goes without mentioning his energy and ability to press.

Wake:

#3 Kyle Holcomb (Striker, Junior): While David Wrona is certainly white hot right now and will also likely be a key player in this game, Holcomb is in equally excellent form and will likely get the start, which is why he is my pick of the two. Holcomb was a player who was massively important down the stretch last season and has picked up right where he left off, scoring 3 goals so far this year in 4 games, tied for the team lead with Wrona. Since the halfway point of last season, Holcomb has been able to pair his pace, energy, and ability to find spaces with a clinical finishing ability that it felt he was missing to start last year. This season he looks even more deadly, rarely missing a chance that has come his way.

#32 Garrison Tubbs (Center Back, Freshman): Tubbs has been solid this year in Wake’s backline, partnering with Nico Benalcazar in the absence of Senior CB Michael DeShields, but this is his toughest game so far. He’s used his 6’3” frame effectively and has shown himself to be a solid tackler, as well as being deceptively good with his feet for a big man. But tonight he’ll have to deal with Clemson’s relentless press, so his and Benalcazar’s performances tonight will be key in deciding this game. With the bright lights on him, it will be interesting to see if the Freshman will rise to the occasion.