In 2008, #21 Wake Forest took down the Clemson Tigers 12-7 in Winston Salem. That prompted the Tigers to fire head coach Tommy Bowden and promote a guy named Dabo Swinney to be the interim head coach. The rest, as they say, is history. Since that game, Clemson is 13-0 against the Deacs and is outscoring Wake Forest 527-167—that’s an average margin of victory of around 28 points per game. The past, however, is the past. The Tigers have not looked great on offense this season and have a slew of injuries in the secondary on defense. The Deacs are much improved on defense this season and have one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC in Sam Hartman. Plus, the game is at home. Could this finally be the year Wake Forest gets back in the win column? Here are five things Wake Forest must do on Saturday if they want to pull off the upset.
1. Keep DJ Uiagalelei in the pocket
DJ Uiagalelei is not a quarterback that has proven he can beat teams as a pocket passer. He has completed 59% of his passes for 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his career. Even against Wake Forest’s defense last season, which was one of the worst in the conference, Uiagalelei completed just 11 of his 19 passes for 1 touchdown and 1 interception. On one of those passes, he escaped the pocket after what seemed like 5 near sacks and bombed the ball down the field to a wide-open receiver for a 50-yard gain. That exact same thing happened last week in the Liberty game multiple times, with quarterback Kaidon Salter avoid the pressure, escaping the pocket, and throwing touchdown passes twice on 4th down. The Wake Forest defense must do a better job on QB contain this week and force Uiagalelei to beat them from the pocket as a passer, instead of on the run as a playmaker.
2. Clean up the Special Teams
Outside of Matthew Dennis’s kicking, the special teams have kind of been a disaster for Wake Forest so far this season. Through 3 games, we have seen high snaps on both punts and field goals, muffed punts, a blocked punt resulting in a safety, and some pretty poor kickoff coverage. Last week against Liberty, the Deacs had to start sky kicking the ball because of an inability to kick the ball into the endzone or stop the returner from getting great field position. Against a team that has struggled so far this season to move the ball on offense, Wake absolutely cannot be giving up points on special teams. The Deacs must force Clemson to sustain drives and prove that they can consistently move the ball down the field to score.
3. Find a run game
Despite the fact that the offense is averaging over 430 yards per game, the running game this season has not been good. In their two games against FBS opponents, the Deacs have run the ball 66 times for 172 yards, which is under 3 yards per carry. I don’t know if the issue is the offensive line not getting any push, the running backs not finding a hole fast enough, or just defenses being a little more familiar with the slow mesh offense, but Wake is going to need to find a run game this weekend if they want to beat Clemson. As we saw in the third quarter of the Liberty game, it is hard to sustain drives when the Deacs cannot depend on the ground game to pick up short yardage situations on 3rd down. In that third quarter where Wake had just 1 or 2 first downs, the Deacs had to go to the air on a 3rd and 1 and a 4th and 1 due to the lack of a run game. Both attempts were unsuccessful. I don’t think the Deacs can pull off the upset if Hartman has to throw the ball 45 or more times.
4. Throw a changeup every now and then
Clemson has had a ton of success thwarting the Wake Forest slow mesh offense in the past simply by blitzing the mesh point and playing physical with Wake’s receivers down the field. I see no reason why they would do anything else this time around, so the Deacs are going to need to have a changeup they can go to outside of the slow mesh RPO. Every few plays, Wake is going to need to run something that forces the Clemson defense to slow down and punishes their over-aggressiveness. Sprinkling in some screen passes, QB draws, or even just some straight hand-offs with a little misdirection will likely be pretty effective against a defense that is just flying straight at the quarterback on every possession. Slowing down the rush would definitely ease some of the pressure on Sam Hartman and help him settle into the game.
5. Limit Penalties
Penalties, which have never really been an issue under Clawson, are starting to become a concern for Deacs. In three games this season, Wake has committed 20 penalties for 168 yards, including 8 penalties for 70 yards in the last game against Liberty. A holding call can be a complete drive killer, and the Deacs had 3 of those against the Flames—two of them wiped out 10+ yard runs. Getting behind the sticks because of penalties really shrinks the playbook and allows the defense to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Against a defensive line like the one Clemson has, falling into 2nd or 3rd and 10+ yards is a recipe for disaster. Obviously, this applies to every game, but the fewer penalties the better.
The Deacs have a big chance to get top 5 victory and put themselves in the driver seat of the ACC Atlantic this weekend. A big home crowd could make the difference, so make sure you get out to Truist Field on Saturday if you can. Let’s do this thing.