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Wake Forest Football: Old and New School Philosophies Set to Clash Again

Two unique offenses square off on Saturday

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, Wake Forest and Army will square off for the 8th time in a rematch from last year’s exciting 70-56 shootout. And while they may look drastically different, both teams bring with them an incredibly unique option style offense.

Look around the college football landscape, and you will see maybe 3 teams—Army, Navy, and Air Force—running the old school triple option from the flexbone formation. While it was extremely popular in the 80s, most schools have moved away from the system while incorporating some of its ideas into more modern spread styles. The service academies continue to use it because it is still incredibly effective and can equalize the talent disparity when playing Power 5 programs.

Similarly, the Wake Forest slow-mesh offense is something most teams will see exactly one time during the season. Stanford has started using the slow-mesh a little bit this season, but outside of that, no one else in college football is running it. While the slow mesh style is unique, the RPO has basically become the new school triple option—in the last decade it has become the most popular style play in all of college football. It is effective for the same reason the triple option is effective: whatever the defense decides to do is wrong.

While the slow-mesh RPO and triple option are based on the same concept of forcing the defense into making a wrong choice, that is kind of where the similarities end. Wake Forest mostly uses the run to set up the pass, looking for 1 on 1 coverage down the field to make big plays in the passing game. Army is perfectly happy to nickel and dime their way down the field in what is more a “death by a thousand cuts” of 5-yard fullback dives. It is not surprising then that almost 70% of Wake’s yards have come through the air this season while nearly 73% of Army’s total offense comes on the ground.

That’s not the only difference in the two schemes. The Deacs run an up-tempo, no huddle style offense, trying to tire out the defense by keeping the same unit trapped on the field for 2-3 minutes of fast-paced action. While Wake has slowed the pace down a little bit this season, the goal is always to score as quickly as possible. The Black Knights, on the other hand, seemingly go as slow as possible, subbing and huddling on pretty much every single play. They prefer to tire out the defense with a marathon-like, methodical style that ideally takes 15+ plays and eats 10 minutes of clock. This was very apparent in last year’s matchup, where the Deacs possessed the ball for 17 minutes to Army’s 43 minutes.

Speaking of last year’s game, I think we can all agree the final score of that one had to do more with the defenses than the offenses. Neither team could buy a stop, and the result was the highest scoring game of the 2021 season. It seems strange that a team that runs the ball every play and wants to eat as much clock as possible could manage to put up 56 points in a game (even against a lackluster defense), but going back to 2015, the Black Knights have scored 50 or more points against FBS opponents 7 times, including a 66-point game against UTEP in 2016 and a 70-point outing against a ranked Houston team in 2018. If a team is not prepared to stop the triple option, the points can roll up pretty fast.

That puts a lot of pressure on Wake Forest Defensive Coordinator Brad Lambert. Lambert has the difficult task of getting the Wake Forest defense, which gave up 56 points and 600 yards to Army last season, prepared for an incredibly unique offense in just under a week’s time. This is not the first time Lambert has had the task of getting the Deacs prepared for the triple option, so I looked back at how Wake fared in some of those past contests.

Brad Lambert vs The Triple Option

Game Carries Yards Average TDs
Game Carries Yards Average TDs
2008 Navy 59 292 4.95 3
2008 Navy (Eagle Bank Bowl) 48 221 4.60 1
2009 at #10 Georgia Tech 62 412 6.65 4
2009 at Navy 64 338 5.28 1
2010 Navy 51 274 5.37 2
Average 56.8 307.4 5.37 2.2

Obviously, those game were played a long time ago and the rosters are completely different, but Lambert definitely had some success against the option in his first stint as DC at Wake from 2008-2010. Aside from the game against a top 10 Georgia Tech team that went on to win the ACC Championship Game, the Deacs held the triple option to around 300 yards rushing per game and 5 yards per carry. I did not see a more recent game against the option from Lambert’s time as the Head Coach at Charlotte or as the DC at Marshall/Purdue.

We will see on Saturday if Lambert is able to replicate that success this season. After last season’s game against the Black Knights, I really don’t think it will be that hard for the Deacs to make some improvements on defense—even making Army punt two times would technically be twice as good as they did the last time.

I have a feeling we will see a much more prepared Wake Forest defense this time around.

Go Deacs!