It’s hard to believe it was just 2 seasons ago when Wake Forest and Pittsburgh met in the ACC championship game and went on to finish their respective seasons with 11 wins. This week, the Deacs and the Panthers will meet under very different circumstances—as 2 of the worst teams in the ACC. The Deacs have lost 3 straight and are still winless in conference play, while the Panthers have just 2 wins, but snapped a 4-game losing streak last week with a win over a ranked Louisville team. This game definitely feels like a must-win for Wake Forest if they want to have any hope of making it to an 8th straight bowl game, so let’s check out the 3 keys to getting back in the win column.
Back to the basics
There’s no good way to say it, so I’ll be blunt: the Wake Forest offense has been awful this season. The Deacs rank 99th in scoring offense with just 19 points per game and 86th in total offense with 370 yards per game. Those numbers are bad on their own, but the reality is even worse—since conference play started, the Deacs are averaging just over 13 points and 1 offensive touchdown per game. Wake is now 3rd in the nation in sacks allowed, giving up 29 sacks through 6 games, which is on pace for 58 sacks allowed this season. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Deacs have the 4th most turnovers in the nation with 14, which puts them on pace for 28 turnovers this season—that would be the most turnovers by a Wake Forest team this millennium. On the drives where Wake does manage to move the ball down the field without turning it over, they are scoring touchdowns on just 32% of their redzone trips—the worst percentage in the country.
Red-zone touchdown percentages for Wake Forest:— Deacons Illustrated (@WakeRivals) October 17, 2023
2018 - 37 of 61 (60.7%), 72nd of 130 FBS teams
2019 - 31 of 57 (54.4%), 95 of 130
2020 - 31 of 43 (72.1%), 19 of 127
2021 - 45 of 67 (67.2%), 32 of 130
2022 - 45 of 67 (67.2%), 38 of 131
2023 - 8 of 25 (32%), 133 of 133
It doesn’t seem like there’s a good answer to solve the offense’s problems this season, because it’s been bad in almost every single area. The QB play has been subpar, the line can’t block anyone, the running backs—while good at running—are completely unreliable on passing plays, and the receivers have had some very untimely drops. I’m not sure this offense can be fixed this season, but in my opinion, it might help the Deacs to just get back to the basics. You have to walk before you can run, so I don’t think Wake can be running complicated, slow developing plays that require the QB to read multiple players when the line is unable to block for any substantial amount of time, and the QB often make the wrong read when he is protected.
Obviously, the team cannot drastically change their offense in a week, but it might help to just simplify things with shorter routes and easier reads to get the ball out of the QB’s hand as fast as possible. More screens, designed handoffs, and quick passes rather than RPOs and slow meshes would—at the very least—help the QB not get destroyed every game. That will likely be even more important this week, as the Panthers go into Saturday’s game ranked 8th in the nation with 3.5 sacks per game.
In their last 4 games, it seems like the Deacs came out of the gates slowly, digging themselves into a hole that they then have to try to claw out of in the second half. Wake has trailed 17-0 against Old Dominion, 20-3 against Georgia Tech, 7-3 against Clemson, and 17-10 against Virginia Tech at the half—they were only able to complete the comeback against ODU. With the sole first half touchdown over that stretch coming on Demond Claiborne’s 96-yard kickoff return, the Wake Forest offense has not scored a first half touchdown since Tate Carney’s 1 yard run with 3:22 left in the 2nd quarter against Vanderbilt—that was 6 weeks ago. For the sake of emphasis, with Old Dominion’s 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown, the Wake Forest offense has actually allowed more first half touchdowns than they have scored over the past 4 games. Getting in a big deficit early not only puts more pressure on both the offense and defense in the 2nd half, but it also can completely take the fans out of the game and neutralize the home field advantage. Neither of the teams in this game are what anyone would call an offensive powerhouse this season (Pitt is 124th in yards per game), so even a 10-point lead at the half could be enough to get the win.
Don’t get beat deep
The Pitt offense has actually been pretty similar to Wake’s so far this season—a lackluster offensive line and unreliable QB play has resulted in an inability to move the ball and put points on the board. In terms of yards per play, the Deacs and the Panthers are tied for the worst offense in the ACC with just 5.1 yards per play, and both teams are averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per carry on the ground.
That being said, one area where the Pitt offense has exceled this season is on the deep balls. Despite completing just 49% of their passes this season—the 3rd worst percentage in the nation behind Iowa and Navy—Pitt QB’s are still averaging almost 200 passing yards per game, making the Panthers a top 20 team in the nation in yards per completion. Before getting benched, Phil Jurkovec had a game where he threw for 179 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 10 completions against Cincinnati and a game where he threw for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 11 completions against Virginia Tech. That pattern didn’t seem to change last week with Christian Veilluex making his first career start, as the Penn State transfer completed just 12 passes for 200 yards and 2 touchdowns. So, while the Panthers don’t complete a high percentage of their passes, the ones that they do seem to go for big yards and touchdowns quite often.
In a game between two fairly inept offenses, giving up a couple of explosive plays could be the deciding factor. The Deacs would likely be better off playing a more “bend but don’t break” style defense in this one, forcing the Panthers to dink and dunk their way down the field. Pitt is one of the worst teams in the nation on 3rd down (35%) and Veilleux is completing just 45% of his passes in 3 games this season, so statistically it's unlikely that the Panthers can win this game with methodical, sustained drives. The more the Wake Forest defense can take away the deep ball, the less likely it is that the Pittsburgh offense will be able to move the ball down the field and score.