At 4-4, the Deacs must win half of their remaining 4 games to become bowl eligible and extend the bowl streak to 8 in a row. The first of those remaining 4 games is a pretty solid 5-3 Duke Blue Devils team that relies heavily on their defense and the run game. The Blue Devils started the season off hot, rising as high as 16th in the AP top 25, but due to some injury issues to starting QB Riley Leonard, Duke has dropped 3 of their last 4 games and are currently on a 2-game losing streak. Here are the keys to picking up a win in Durham on Thursday night.
Find a pass rush
While the Wake Forest defense is definitely much improved over what it was the past 2 seasons, one area they still struggle in is defending the pass. The Deacs are allowing opponents to complete 61% of their passes for an ACC worst 256 yards per game, including 3 straight games of 300+ passing yards allowed. One big reason for that is because Wake Forest simply has no pass rush. After racking up 16 sacks over the first 3 games of the season—including a 10-sack game against Old Dominion—the Deacs have managed just 2 sacks since conference play started in Week 4. Opposing quarterbacks have faced almost no pressure, and the result has been an increase of nearly 10 completion percentage points and 40 passing yards per game as compared to those first 3 games. It has also led to a complete lack of turnovers from opposing QBs, as the Deacs have intercepted just 1 pass since the Old Dominion game (DaShawn Jones vs GT).
Last season, the Deacs allowed Riley Leonard to sit back comfortably in the pocket and torch them through the air in Wake’s 31-34 loss to the Blue Devils. Leonard was sacked just 1 time in that game and completed 70% of his passes for nearly 400 yards and 4 touchdowns. That simply cannot happen again if Wake wants to get 1 step closer to an 8th straight bowl game. In last week’s game, Louisville was all over Leonard, sacking him 4 times and pressuring him the entire game—the result was one of Leonard’s worst games as a Blue Devil. The junior QB completed just 9 of his 23 pass attempts for 121 yards and an interception as the Cardinal defense shut out a Duke offense that was averaging nearly 30 points per game. If the Deacs can get after Leonard, whose mobility may still be hampered from that injured ankle, Wake Forest should have a much better shot at bring home a win in this one. If they can’t get home with 4, Wake should dial up some blitzes to try and get Leonard uncomfortable, because it really doesn’t matter how many guys a team has in coverage, a good QB will always find someone to throw the ball to if he has enough time.
Establish the run
At this point in the season, I think it’s just obvious that the Deacs have no passing game. After 6 more sacks last game against Florida State, Wake is the 3rd most sacked team in the nation (behind Old Dominion and Colorado) and is on pace to allow 54 sacks this season. Even when the protection holds up, the passing game just isn’t good—the Deacs are completing just 57% of their passes this season for just 200 yards per game. And then there’s this graphic from CFBNumbers:
I think that pretty much sums up how things have gone for the Wake Forest passing attack this season.
Thankfully, the solution to this problem is an easy one: get Sandra Bullock to call Dave Clawson and tell him to run the dang ball. With just a fourth of the season remaining, I don’t really think there is much the Deacs can change at this point to have significantly better results throwing the ball, so it may just be time to mostly abandon the pass and rely heavily on the ground game. Not only does establishing the run and staying ahead of the sticks mean the Deacs don’t have to try to throw the ball, but it also has been a key to beating the Blue Devils this season. In games where Duke has given up 150 or more rushing yards, the Blue Devils are 1-3 with a single win over Clemson. On the other hand, Duke is a perfect 4-0 when holding their opponent to under 150 yards on the ground. Last week, the Cardinals ran for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns against this Duke defense, so the Deacs should try to replicate their results.
The Wake Forest offense is what it is—and it’s not good. The Deacs are averaging an ACC worst 22.3 points per game this season, and that number drops to under 16 points per game if you take out the first 3 games of the season against Elon, Vanderbilt, and Old Dominion. With the normal offense failing to do anything for the past 5 games, perhaps it's time to try something a little abnormal. It doesn’t even need to be a legitimate trick play, like the reverse the Deacs ran against Pitt, it could also just but something unexpected that Wake hasn’t run before—such as the jet sweep the Deacs used to score a touchdown against FSU after the “power” formations got stuffed at the goal line. Throwing in a little razzle dazzle just to mix things up and catch the defense off guard could help the Deacs get some much-needed points on the board. Even if it fails, the consequences of doing something crazy probably wouldn’t be that much different from what the offense has typically done this season.