The Wake Forest Demon Deacons (4-2, 1-1) have a tough task ahead of them as they travel to face the NC State Wolfpack (4-3, 0-2) at the Dail Soccer Field/Track Complex in Raleigh as they look to notch their first ACC road win of the season. The Deacs come into this one as winners of back to back games, their most recent being a 1-0 win in Fairfax, Virginia against George Mason on Monday, with Wake leaving their goal until the last 20 minutes but dominating proceedings throughout with a team that was heavily rotated. As for the Pack, their last game was last Friday, when they traveled to South Bend and ended up on the wrong side of a 1-0 scoreline with Notre Dame, as the Irish scored one late on and saw the game out. This was their second ACC loss, with the first coming to #2 Clemson the Friday previous in a 2-0 game. With both teams still in murky waters, this game is a huge litmus test to see where both teams are going this season.
This is the 49th meeting between the Big Four rivals, with the Deacs having a dominant lead in the all time series, with a 31-11-6 mark against the Pack, who have not won any of the previous 19 meetings between the schools, with their most recent victory against Wake coming in the 2006 season. Last year, the Deacs went 1-0-1 in the season series against State, destroying the Wolfpack in Raleigh by a 4-1 scoreline in the fall, but tying them 0-0 in Winston-Salem in the Spring. State would finish last season with a 3-8-4 mark on the whole and a 1-7-4 mark in conference, failing to register an ACC win until March 26th when they would win in 2OT against Syracuse. Last season put an end to their 3 year tournament streak under head coach George Kiefer, who previously guided USF to 10 tournament appearances in his 15 years there before becoming the head coach in Raleigh prior to the 2017 season. He had won more games than he’d lost in each of his previous seasons in Raleigh prior to last year and has been a persistent thorn in the side of many of the elite teams in the ACC. Although they sit winless in conference, and were picked to finish 5th in the Atlantic Division, they won both of their preseason exhibitions against Virginia Tech and Duke, who are currently the number 12 and number 6 teams in the nation. While exhibitions may not be good indicators of how good a team is over the course of a real season, it is worth keeping in mind that this team gave two of the best teams in the country some real trouble in preseason.
Tactically, the Pack roll out a 4-3-3, with Alex Hernandez as the furthest forward player in the midfield, joining the forwards to press. They are a team that likes quick transitions, hitting the ball long to put opposing defenders under pressure, and winning second balls. They’re quick, physical, and aggressive, not unlike the Louisville team Wake played a couple of weeks ago, but not with the same level of intensity of the press. They like their strong side fullback to get forward, so in possession the formation almost settles into a 3 at the back, with the weak side fullback stepping back to build out with the center backs while the strong side fullback joins the attack. They like working the ball down the flanks and sending crosses in, as they have a big center forward, and are also a set piece threat not only on corners and free kicks out wide, but also on direct free kicks. Wake will need to take care not to be as sloppy in this game, as against George Mason, they made some ugly turnovers in the middle of the field that, with all due respect, a more competent team would do much more with. Wake has shown an ability in the last couple of games to match their opponent’s intensity, especially in that Pitt game when they were winning more second balls than the team that seemingly couldn’t lose them in their previous few games, and they’ll need to do that again tonight. Although they are not a team that relies on quick transitions, State will give them plenty of opportunity to catch them out of shape, as when they possess the ball they settle into that strange back three shape with only one midfielder deep. If Wake can find their outside players out of State’s press or if they can strip the ball in the middle of the field, they could create some havoc. A third straight win for Wake would be a huge momentum shift for the Deacs, while State could right the ship for their season with a win like this.
Ones to Watch
#5 Jamie Smith (CB): Smith is entering his third year with NC State after joining them from Limestone College, a Division II college in Gaffney, SC, and has become a stalwart in their defense. He is an aggressive, physical defender that loves duels, but also has an added wrinkle to his game, as a dead ball specialist for this team. He sits second on the team with 2 goals, both against James Madison and both coming directly from free kicks. He’ll be tasked with containing one of the best forwards in the country, Kyle Holcomb, and that will be his primary responsibility, but if a free kick opportunity presents itself he can be just as much of a danger to Wake’s goal as he is a rock in front of State’s.
#13 Alex Hernandez (AM): Hernandez was a godsend for State under unfortunate circumstances, with App State’s program being shut down after the 2019 season and leading players like Hernandez to have to look elsewhere to finish their college careers. The Pack reaped the benefits of that as a result, with Hernandez now starting as their main link between midfield and attack. A tricky player with great feet and control of the ball in tight spaces, he is a nagging problem for defenders, who have to choose whether to step out to him or let him have the ball in space. He has registered 2 assists this season, and although he still hasn’t registered a goal for the Pack, he is a very dangerous attacking player when he gets on the ball.
#7 Kyle Holcomb (CF): Holcomb has been white hot to start this season, registering 3 goals and 2 assists in 6 games this season, good for the team lead in points with 8. The problem for Wake has not been creating chances this season, it has been putting them away. After the Deacs’ weak finishing performance against George Mason on Monday, Wake will be faced with a much tougher opponent, and one that will likely punish them if they don’t bury their chances. Holcomb has run hot and cold in front of goal in the past couple of years, but now that he is off to a very hot start, he’ll need to continue that momentum and put away whatever big chance comes to him tonight, as one always seems to fall to him. It could be the first step in turning what has been a hot streak from Holcomb into an elite season.
#24 Jake Swallen (CM): Swallen has had some rough games this season, but right now is showing why he deserves to start in one of those 8 spots. He has been absolutely critical in the last two wins, putting in an excellent shift Pitt that included an assist on the second goal, and scoring the winner in the George Mason game on Monday. He sits on 5 points this year, with a goal and 3 assists, but his work is so much deeper than that. He has been very good at winning second balls and fouls in the middle in addition to progressing the ball well from the defense into the attack. He’ll again be faced with an aggressive and energetic team tonight, and will be expected to be able to ensure Wake retains control of the game and creates danger going forward, and all of that starts with him being able to do the right thing on the ball.
Kickoff is set for 7:00 on ACCN Extra or ESPN+.