Opening night for the 2023 Wake Forest Football season is right around the corner, and that means it's time to do a quick rundown of the schedule to try to get a feel for what we can expect from the Deacs this season. Wake Forest will once again be opening the season on a weekday, this year against FCS Elon on Thursday. I’m guessing Clawson is a fan of the weekday opener, as the Deacs haven’t opened the season on a Saturday since 2012 (with the exception of the covid year).
- Opponent: Elon Phoenix
- Date: Thursday, August 31st, 2023
- Location: Allegacy Federal Credit Union Stadium | Winston Salem, NC
- Vegas Win Total O/U: N/A
- 2022 Record: 8-4, 6-2 in CAA
- Previous Matchup: Wake 49—Elon 7 (2019)
- All time vs Wake Forest: 0-3
Elon may be an FCS team, but they were very solid last season. After a 42-31 loss to Vanderbilt in the first game of the season, the Phoenix ripped off 5 wins in a row before their next loss on the road at Rhode Island. That Vandy game got close at the end, with Elon battling back from a 28-10 halftime deficit to make the Commodores nervous towards the end of the 4th quarter. Despite ultimately losing the game, the Phoenix left Nashville after outgaining Vanderbilt 495 to 424 yards and scoring 31 points on a Power 5 (probably the last year we can use this term) opponent. Racking up nearly 500 yards on a Vanderbilt team that ended the season with wins over Florida and #24 Kentucky is pretty impressive for an FCS school—overlook them at your own peril. The Phoenix went on to finish the regular season 8-2 against FCS opponents before falling to Furman 31-6 in the first round of the FCS playoffs.
The bad news for Elon is that they lost starting QB Matthew McKay. McKay completed 61% of his passes last season for 2,709 yards, 21 touchdowns, and just 4 interceptions. He was also second on the team in rushing with 500 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns. In that narrow loss to Vanderbilt last season, McKay accounted for all 4 of Elon’s touchdowns and nearly 400 of their 495 yards—that type of production is not going to be easy to replace. Replacing McKay this season will likely be transfer Matthew Downing, who has played at Georgia, TCU, and Louisiana Tech over his 5-year collegiate career. Downing completed 53% of his passes for just 356 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 games last season before suffering an ACL injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He entered the transfer portal and committed to Elon in June.
On top of losing a very good QB, the Phoenix also lost their top 2 receivers from last season in Bryson Daughtry and Jackson Parham. The duo combined for 93 of the team’s 202 total receptions, 1,470 of their 2,784 receiving yards, and 11 of their 21 touchdowns through the air last season. Again, it’s not easy to replace that kind of production. The Phoenix will get a little help in that department with 6’5” UMass transfer Onuma Dieke, and they also return preseason All-CAA TE Johncarlos Miller II, who finished 2022 with 26 receptions for 200 yards and 3 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman.
The good news for Elon is that they still have Jalen Hampton, who was the workhorse for the offense last season. As a redshirt freshman, Hampton ran for over 1,100 yards last season, scoring 10 touchdowns and averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark 4 times and accounted for over half of the teams total rushing yards and rushing touchdowns last season. His best game came in the regular season finale against Hampton, where he ran the ball 24 times for 177 yards and 3 touchdowns to lead Elon to a 38-24 win to finish the season. With a potential starting QB who has been with the team for just over 2 months and some inexperience at wide receiver, there is a good chance that the Phoenix will rely heavily on the ground game in the early games of the season. I would expect to see Hampton get plenty of carries in the season opener.
On the defensive side, Elon gave up just 21 points and 340 total yards per game last season. In their one FBS game against Vanderbilt, the Phoenix did give up 424 yards and 42 points to a team that Wake Forest, who is not exactly known for their defensive prowess in recent history, held to 294 yards and 25 points. That’s just the reality of the differences in the sheer size, speed, and athleticism between FCS and Power 5 players. On top of that, the Phoenix lost their top 2 tacklers off of last year’s squad in Marcus Hillan and Jamir Malone, who combined for 157 total tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. They also lost All-CAA defensive back Omar Rogers, who transferred to ECU after finishing the season with 60 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 2 sacks. The Phoenix were already going to struggle to keep up with the talent on Wake’s roster, but based on the production lost off of last season’s squad, the Deacs should have no trouble moving the ball on Elon.
Wake scheduled this game for a reason—the Deacs should have this game won by halftime. That should allow them to rest the starters and get everyone some game experience. Vanderbilt probably thought the same thing last year and had to sweat out a victory in the 4th quarter, so hopefully the team isn’t overlooking the Phoenix.