It is make or break time for the Deacs. While football season definitely hasn’t gone as well as anyone wanted, Wake Forest can still get bowl eligible by winning out or winning at least a game and hoping that there aren’t enough 6-win teams to fill all the bowl slots. Finishing the season 2-0 is going to be quite an uphill battle, as both games are on the road, and the Deacs are currently 24.5 point underdogs against #19 Notre Dame this weekend. It’s definitely a longshot, but there’s a reason they play the games. Here are 3 keys to taking down the Irish and pulling off the improbably upset this weekend:
Wake Forest should know Sam Hartman better than any school in the nation. They should know very well that Hartman always struggled the most against teams like NC State, Pitt, Louisville, and Clemson—teams that pinned their ears back and got a ton of pressure on him. When teams get pressure on Hartman and get hits on him early, he is susceptible to getting flustered and making some pretty bad decisions. Think back to some of Hartman’s worst games as a Deac—4 interceptions vs Pitt in a game he was sacked 4 times, back-to-back 3 interception games vs NC State where he was sacked 3 and 4 times, the infamous 3 interception, 3 fumble game against Louisville last season where he was sacked 7 times in 3 quarters—and you’ll see a pretty clear pattern: Hartman doesn’t do well under pressure.
You might be thinking that has changed this season since he is in a new offense with a new offensive line, but you’d be wrong. Hartman’s last 3 ACC opponents have been none other than the aforementioned Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Clemson—teams that rank 24th, 35th, and 44th respectively in the nation in sacks per game this season. In those 3 games, Hartman was sacked 8 times and completed just 53 of his 93 pass attempts (57%) for 2 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His last game against Clemson was one of the worst of his career, finishing 13-30 for 146 yards and 2 interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. Notre Dame was 1-2 in those 3 games, the lone win being against Pitt.
For the Deacs to have a chance in this game, they are going to have to get after Hartman and put him into panic mode early in the game. If Wake can’t get any pressure with 4, they need to send 5. If they can’t get any pressure with 5, they need to send 6. Wake must continue to send more blitzers until they can get pressure on Hartman and try to make him have one “those” games, where he becomes a turnover machine. If Wake Forest can rattle Hartman and get him off his game, they might have a chance at pulling off the upset. If they instead try to drop 8 guys into coverage and let him stand comfortably in the pocket all day, he will most likely pick them apart.
Somebody has to score
In order to win this game, Wake Forest is going to have to score more points than Notre Dame (that’s high-level analysis). At this point in the season, I have pretty much given up on the offense’s ability to do that. The Deacs currently rank 113th in the nation in scoring and 103rd in the nation in total offense, putting up just 20.5 points and 330 yards per game. They are coming off one of the worst offensive performances since Dave Clawson’s first season as the head coach with just 6 points and 163 yards of total offense in a blowout loss against NC State. Frankly, the offense seems to be getting worse as the season progresses, and I don’t have a lot of confidence in them scoring against a very good Notre Dame defense that is giving up just 17 points and 280 yards per game this season.
In order for Wake to pull off the upset in this one, the defense or the special teams is going to have to help the offense put some points on the board. If the defense can get after Hartman and make him turn the ball over, they really need to turn those turnovers directly into points, because we have seen the offense fail to score any points in back-to-back games on drives where the defense gifted them the ball at the opponents 15-yard line against Duke and 36-yard line against NC State. At this point, Wake may be better off with the defense getting crazy and trying to lateral the ball a bunch off of a turnover to try to score than trusting the offense to get the ball into the endzone. Every turnover and kick return must be viewed as a chance to score, because the offense just hasn’t been able to convert at all this season.
Outside of Sam Hartman, most of Notre Dame’s offense has come from starting RB Audric Estime this season. In 10 games this season, Estime has the run the ball 163 times for 988 yards (6.1 avg) and 13 touchdowns—he currently ranks 18th in the nation in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry, and 8th in rushing touchdowns. Based on that, it is pretty obvious that he is one of the best running backs in college football this season,
One of the reasons Estime is so good is that he is really hard to bring down. He has a great combination of size and speed that gives him the ability to just run through tacklers and stay on his feet. Many times, opponents think he is bottled up and going down, and then he just explodes through a couple of arm tackles and turns a typical running play into something much bigger. Against NC State, Wake really struggled against another physical runner in Brennan Armstrong, who ran the ball 15 times for 96 yards a touchdown. Estime is a much bigger threat in the run game than Armstrong, so if the Deacs have a similar performance in this game, it will look much, much worse. Wake Forest will need multiple players getting to Estime when he runs the ball, because a lot of times one guy is not going to be able to bring him down.