We’re two days away from what is the biggest game being played in Winston-Salem in almost two decades, when the #16 NC State Wolfpack come to town to take on #12 Wake Forest in a game that the winner will have a stranglehold on the ACC Atlantic moving into the final two games of the season.
Coming off a heartbreaking collapse against UNC, the Demon Deacons look to turn the page and continue to make Winston a house of horrors, N.C. State has lost eight of the last nine times it came to Winston-Salem, and become one step closer to their first ACC Atlantic title since 2006.
The Wolfpack pose easily the best defense Wake will have seen to this point, and while the offense isn’t explosive, they’re annoyingly consistent. What questions do both sides of the ball for the Deacs have to answer in order to come out on Saturday night with a win?
- Can Wake’s offense stay patient throughout the game?
The defense from NC State is one of the best in the ACC, regardless of the injuries they’ve suffered on that side. They’re stout in the run game and with their drop eight coverage, don’t really allow you to consistently be explosive through the air. Wake has to be able to not find themselves behind the sticks, not abandon the running game as they did late against UNC(after going up 45-21, Wake passed on 70% of their plays), while Sam Hartman has to be ok with taking off and running from time to time while also just accepting the 4-5 yard dumpoffs, not forcing any passes. You’re going to have to grind this one out. You’re going to have to trust your running backs to get you some tough yards, you’re going have to be perfect when you’re attacking the middle, and you’re going to have to win this game versus a defense blowing coverages.
2. Can the offensive line handle exotic looks up front?
The pass blocking up front for Wake has been nothing short of excellent this year, while the run blocking has been good enough to this point. NC State’s 3-3-5 throws an interesting look at any OL and they’ve been wreaking havoc even when only bringing three or four rushers. Can the offensive line that’s operating a bit banged up, as Michael Jurgens, Loic Ngassam Nya, and Zach Tom are all playing through different degrees of injuries right now, handle this daunting defensive line and give Hartman enough time when the Wolfpack starts through blitzes from the most odd of places?
3. Mistakes cleaned up from last week?
Dave Clawson was the first to say that even though Wake threw up 50+ points, they had too many unforced erros on the offensive side of the ball. 6th year tight end Brandon Chapman lined up incorrectly and took a touchdown off the board due to an illegal formation penalty. 4 drops by the receivers. Two bad picks from Sam Hartman(one should’ve been a free play but regardless you have to throw that ball as far downfield as possible). It was just uncharacteristic from the offense that has been legendary all year and you can’t make those mistakes two games in a row.
- Who is going to play?
There’s been some gamesmanship between the two sides in terms of a depth chart with Wake listing the following players that we’ve seen banged up: DE Ja’Corey Johns, DB Malik Mustapha, CB Caelen Carson, and CB Gavin Holmes. We also saw Nasir Greer on a pitch count and Evan Slocum only register four snaps against UNC. Dave Clawson has consistently said that he’s limited and held guys out but if it was for the ACC title or a championship game in general, they would’ve played. It’s put up or shut up time here for statements like that. Unless guys are out for the season, this can’t be where you keep people on pitch counts, this is an all hands on deck game.
2. Regardless of who plays, will the adjustments be made?
Whether they’re with the corners or without them, Wake can’t sit here and expect NC State to just give them the game on offense. State isn’t flashy. Mostly by design and stubbornness, but they get the job done and can quickly rack up points. This can’t be a game where Lyle Hemphill is slow to adjust until after the opposition score three straight touchdowns. The Wolfpack bleeds too much clock and before you know it, it’ll be halftime and you’re down 21-10. You can’t play a pick your poison game of either leaving your corners out to dry or continually getting gashed on the ground because you’re running a soft zone to cover for your corners not being 100%. You need to put your guys in winnable positions and allow your places where you are healthy, defensive line and linebacker, to be able to make the great play not the superhero play, and you have to keep yourself fresh enough to ensure when you need it, your best guys are on the field.
3. Will you make Devin Leary beat you?
Devin Leary is playing as well as about any QB in the ACC, who find themselves with four semifinalists for the Davey O’Brien Aaward, but there’s one glaring weakness/uncomfortable part of the NC State offense: they really don’t like to have Leary rip it downfield. It’s not saying he can’t but they just don’t push it down the field, they like to be on schedule. 45 out of his 293 passing attempts have come 20+ yards down the field(15%), compared to 63 out of 280(22.5%) for Sam Hartman, he’s completing 48.9% of said passes and that’s where all three of his interceptions have come at. You don’t want the backs getting into a rhythm and in turn, that’s going to put the ball in Leary’s hands. If he beats you with long balls, oh well, they haven’t done that all year and that’s the game script you want.
- How do you handle emotions?
This looks to be an emotional game all around. We saw the tempers fly to the tune of multiple terrible personal fouls on the defense last week. With Wake being one of the oldest teams in the country, it being Senior Night will definitely add a bit of extra oomph for some of these guys but can they control said emotion? What about the emotion of essentially playing for an ACC title berth? This will also be the first time this year we see how this team responds after a loss. It’ll be interesting to see if the team comes out sloppy or just tight to start the game before easing in.