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Wake Forest Football: 3 Keys to Beating Florida State

How can the Deacs secure a victory in week 9?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Virginia Tech Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

The Deacs return home this weekend to take on what is the toughest team they will face all season: the Florida State Seminoles. While Wake Forest does have a 3-game winning streak against FSU dating back to 2019, the Noles have taken a massive step forward over the past year and have risen back to a national level of prominence that has them currently ranked #4 in the nation with a solid chance of making the CFB Playoff this season. This a team with experience and NFL caliber talent everywhere on both sides of the ball, so Wake is going to have to play nearly perfectly to have a chance in this one. Here are 3 keys to Wake Forest pulling off the upset and winning their 4th straight game against FSU.

Slow it down

The Florida State offense currently ranks 5th in the nation in scoring with almost 42 points per game and 24th in the nation in total offense with 445 yards per game. They have a 6th year senior Heisman candidate at QB and incredible playmakers like Trey Benson, Keon Coleman, and Johnny Wilson, who will all likely being playing on Sundays next year. This is an offense with almost no weaknesses that has scored over 30 points in every game since the Noles lost to Clemson in week 7 last season. With the offensive struggles Wake Forest has experienced this season, the Deacs are probably not going to win this game if it turns into a fast-paced shootout—especially with Wake potentially starting a 3rd string QB and using a limited playbook for the 2nd straight week.

The roadmap for the Deacs pulling off the upset is to keep the score as low as possible (while still scoring) and just try to limit the possessions the Florida State offense will get. That means slowing down the tempo of the offense, running the ball effectively, and extending drives on 3rd down. It also means that Wake really can’t afford many negative plays or penalties that will put them behind the sticks and into those situations where they have to choose between a safe run that probably won’t get the first down or trusting a 3rd string quarterback to make a play against one of the best teams in the country. I don’t know who will end up starting at QB in this game, but the Deacs probably aren’t going to have a chance against a top 5 team if Marucci has to throw the ball 20+ times again.

The 3 teams that have really given Florida State a tough game this season—Boston College, Clemson, and Duke—ran the ball 41, 41, and 35 times respectively. BC and Clemson both won the time of possession game by 8-10 minutes and limited the FSU offense to 58 and 57 plays—Duke probably would have been right around there as well had Riley Leonard not gotten injured. The Seminoles’ run defense is allowing almost 150 yards per game (76th in the nation) and 4.3 yards per carry (87th in the nation), so this should be the avenue of attack for the Deacs on Saturday. If Demond Clairborne and Justice Ellison can have big days on the ground, Wake may be able to come away with a huge win.

Limit big plays in the run game

Florida State is shockingly not as good of a running team as I would have expected this season given their backfield. Despite a three-headed monster of Trey Benson, Lawrance Toafili, and Jordan Travis in the run game, the Noles are averaging 173 rushing yards per game (47th in the nation), down from 214 yards per game last season (13th in the nation). Though their yardage is down significantly, FSU is still managing to average 5.4 yards per carry this season, good for the 15th most efficient rushing team in the nation.

One of the areas the Seminoles excel in is getting big plays on the ground. Benson and Toafili have elite speed and size (they do play at FSU after all), and they really only need a small opening or one missed tackle to turn a typical run play into a big gain. If you look at the games in which Florida State won fairly easily, you will see a pattern: against Southern Miss, Benson had a 42-yard touchdown run; against VT, Benson had 2 touchdowns of 62 and 85 yards, and Toafili had a touchdown run of 28 yards; against Syracuse, Toafili had a touchdown run of 50 yards. In all of their closer games combined (LSU, BC, Clemson, Duke... and yes, LSU and Duke were close into the 4th quarter), the biggest plays the FSU backs managed were a run of 14 yards from Benson against LSU and a run of 13 yards from Toafili against Duke.

Yes, the Florida State offense is very good this season, but if the Deacs can make them move the ball methodically down the field instead of giving up huge plays in the run game, the above pattern suggests that Wake should be able to keep this game relatively close. Florida State is solid on 3rd down, converting about 43% of the time, but that actually puts them at 6th in the ACC, behind 2 teams Wake has already played this season in Georgia Tech and Clemson. The Deacs have been very good on 3rd down this season, allowing opponents to convert just 34% of the time. Ideally, the more plays FSU has to run to score the ball, the more chances the Deacs have to get a 3rd down stop and getting off the field.

Find Keon Coleman

Keon Coleman easily has the distinction of the most impactful transfer player of this season. Through 7 games, the 6-4 Michigan State transfer is leading the Seminole receivers in pretty much every category with 31 catches for 472 yards and 7 touchdowns. He is a lethal combination of size, speed, and athleticism with great hands that give him the ability to be one of the best playmakers in college football this season. He is to Jordan Travis what A.T. Perry was to Sam Hartman: a big, talented receiver who is basically always open and will win any 1 on 1 matchup. Anytime Travis gets into trouble, he can always just throw one up to Coleman with the confidence that Coleman is probably going to come down with it. Travis is on pace for career bests in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and interceptions this season, and I think picking up an elite #1 receiver in the offseason has a lot to do with that.

I’m not sure to what the strategy is to slowing down a player like Keon Coleman, but the Deacs should absolutely study the tape from the Boston College and Duke games to figure out what they did. The Eagles were able to hold Coleman to just 3 targets and 0 catches—his only game without a reception this season—while Duke held him to just 2 catches for 54 yards. Whatever they decide to do, Wake needs to be sure to be locked in on Coleman on any crucial, game changing plays, as that is when Coleman seems to be at his best.