We are closing in on the final stretch of the 2023 football season, and the Deacs must win 2 of their final 3 games to get to 6 wins and go to an 8th straight bowl game. With the game this weekend against NC State being the final home game of the season, it almost feels like a must win for Wake Forest as it will probably be their best chance of getting a win out of the 3 remaining games. The Wolfpack are coming off back-to-back wins over solid Clemson and Miami teams, so they have a bit of momentum heading into this one. Here are my 3 keys to Wake Forest getting the win over NC State on Saturday.
Be ready for the QB runs
The biggest news coming out ahead of this game is that NC State QB MJ Morris has decided to redshirt for the remainder of the season, meaning that the Deacs will be facing off against 5th year senior Brennan Armstrong. Armstrong lost the starting QB job after NC State’s 10-13 loss to Louisville this season—in his 4 FBS games as the starter, Armstrong completed just 52% of his passes for 707 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. While he really struggled throwing the ball earlier in the season, one area where Armstrong excelled was as a runner. Despite not starting at QB and playing just a handful of snaps over the past 4 games for NC State, Armstrong still leads the Wolfpack in rushing yards this season by almost 100 yards and has been State’s leading rusher in 5 out of their 9 games this season. He is such a good runner at the QB position that the Pack started rotating him in against Miami basically as a wildcat quarterback—Armstrong led NC State with 8 runs for 51 yards in their 20-6 win over the Canes last week. He did not even attempt a single pass.
With Armstong’s exceptional ability on the ground and his propensity to turning the ball over in the passing game, I would not be shocked to see NC State go with a run heavy playbook on Saturday for Armstrong. With the way NC State’s defense has played this season (just 21 points and 330 yards allowed per game), not turning the ball over and forcing the Deacs to drive the length of the field for points will likely give the Wolfpack the best chance to win the game, so I would expect a very steady diet of QB powers, draws, and read option style plays in this one. Stopping Armstrong is easier said than done given his size, but getting NC State behind the sticks on early downs could lead to Brennan Armstong—who has thrown 41 career interceptions—trying to make something happen through the air. The Deacs will need to take advantage when that happens.
Don’t be a hero
The CW may be famous for its superhero related TV programming, but in this game, trying to be a hero is exactly what the Deacs do not need. Coming into this game, the Wolfpack have one of the worst offenses in the ACC, averaging just 16 points and 251 yards per game in ACC games this season. They have not scored more than 24 points or gained more than 320 yards against a conference opponent this year. This is not a team that is going to win a lot of games running up the score with their offense, but rather by grinding out low scoring affairs with an incredible defense that excels at generating takeaways.
The NC State defense is currently 10th in the nation in turnovers gained, recovering 5 fumbles and intercepting 13 passes so far this season. Despite gaining just 231 yards last week against Miami, the Pack were able to win the game by forcing Tyler Van Dyke into 4 total turnovers, one of which occurred on the Miami 9-yard line. Against Clemson, NC State gained just 202 total yards, but won the game due to picking off Cade Klubnik twice, one of which was a pick-six.
With two offenses that have struggled to move the ball and put points on the board this season, the turnover battle is going to be a massive factor in this one. Against a defense that is so good at forcing turnovers and turning them into points, the Deacs simply cannot afford to have a bunch of risky plays where someone tries to be the hero and ends up making a mess—they have already had far too many of those this season. In this game, things like taking a sack or just throwing the ball away on 3rd down would be much better than trying to do too much and giving NC State a short field or a defensive touchdown—a punt is a far better outcome than a turnover. Points could be pretty hard to come by in this matchup, so making NC State prove that they can drive the ball the full length of the field to score should be the goal.
Head on a swivel
NC State is once again one of the best teams in the nation at getting after the quarterback. The Wolfpack defense currently ranks 15 in the nation in sacks, with 27 so far this season (3 per game). I may have mentioned it once or twice, but Wake Forest is still the 3rd most sacked team in the nation, having allowed 40 sacks so far this season (4.44 per game)—that makes this a very bad matchup for Wake’s offense. With Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense, NC State can send extra rushers from pretty much any position on any play to try to get to the QB—the Wolfpack currently have 6 players with 2 or more sacks this season. That includes linebacker extraordinaire Payton Wilson, who has 105 tackles, 4 sacks, and 10 tackles for loss this season.
Having to block extra guys has been hard enough for the Deacs this season, and NC State comes with an added level of difficulty because they do such a fantastic job of confusing opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen with their blitzes. Sometimes they’ll simply show a blitz with the linebackers up at the line of scrimmage and they’ll just send everybody. Sometimes they show the blitz and drop everyone out and just rush 3. Other times, they show a blitz on 1 side and wind up coming for the other side. The point is, the offensive line can really never know which players are coming and which are dropping out, which makes NC State’s blitzes that much harder to prepare for. The quarterback and the offensive line must have the awareness to find any blitzers on every play and make sure someone is accounting for them. Elsewise, the offense could have a very long day.