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Virginia vs. Wake Forest Football: The Big Preview

Wake’s offense is really bad.

NCAA Football: Army at Wake Forest Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wondered if the Hoos had peaked earlier this season. Virginia proved me wrong as they put together what may have been their best game of the season. It fell just short against a top 5 Louisville team, as the Cavaliers fell to a 2-6 record on the season.

This week’s opponent doesn’t pose quite the same problem. Though Wake Forest is 5-3, their best win came on the road against Duke early in the season. They’ve also beaten Tulane, Syracuse and Indiana (along with FCS Delaware). Last week, Wake lost at home to Army. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Army is just 2 spots ahead of the Hoos.

We’ve seen this year that when things click for the team, they play extremely well, but they’ve been so inconsistent this year on both sides of the ball that it remains to be seen if they can put it all together for a full 60 minutes. Though it is unlikely, the Hoos are still mathematically alive for a bowl game: it would require winning out. This is the easiest game of the remaining four, despite being on the road.

Game Information:
Who: Wake Forest
Where: BB&T Field (previously called Groves Field)
When: 3:00 ET
TV: RSN (Comcast Sportsnet in DC Area)
OK, let’s take a look at the matchups.

Wake on Offense

QB: #10 John Wolford, #2 Kendall Hinton

RB: #36 Cade Carney, #22 Matt Colburn

WR: #15 Cortez Lewis, #9 Chuck Wade, #1 Tabari Hines

The Deacons’ offense is a shotgun, spread, multiple formation, multiple WR system. Often, these types of offenses put up huge numbers. Think about Oregon, West Virginia, and Oklahoma, for starters. Wake, though, has the 120th ranked offense in the nation. They are 87th in rushing and 109th in passing. They are 123rd in passing efficiency. This is not a good offense. It wasn’t a good offense when the season began and Kendall Hinton was the QB, and it’s not a good offense now that Hinton has missed the past 5 games with sprained knee ligaments.

The offense doesn’t change much depending on the QB. Hinton is a much more dangerous runner, and rushed for 7 TDs last year. This year, he averaged 5 yards per rush before going down. Wolford is averaging 4.6 yards per rush and has 4 TDs on the year.

True freshman Cade Carney has been the starter from game 1. He broke out in a big way against Duke, with 108 yards and 3 TDs. But he also hurt his knee in that game and missed the next 3 games. Colburn did not disappoint in his stead, and actually has arguably been more productive overall. Colburn has 417 yards on 98 carries (4.3 ypc), while Carney has 279 yards on 67 carries (4.2 ypc). Carney, though, has 4 rushing TDs and Colburn has just 1.

Carney is a big, bruising back. He’s 5’11” and 215. That may not seem that big, but keep in mind he’s a true freshman. He’s going to get bigger, and then he’s really going to be a beast. He had a 55 yard romp against Duke, so he’s capable of big plays. But his next biggest run is just 20 yards. He’s really not a big play guy. Colburn is a good complimentary back. He’s smaller, he’s faster and he’s quicker. Both RBs are most noted for being tough, grind-it-out RBs. Neither is going to win many foot races. But neither is going to get caught behind the line of scrimmage too often either.

The Deacons’ WRs also aren’t really game breakers, although Hines has that ability. Of Wake’s 5 pass plays over 35 yards this year, Hines has 3 (Lewis has 1 and Alex Bachman has 1). Hines leads the team with 28 receptions, 347 yards and 2 TDs. But he’s actually listed as “OR” on the depth chart with Chuck Wade. Wade has 20 receptions for 154 yards. That’s 7.7 yards per receptions, which is extremely low for a WR. Those are your slot receivers, they run a lot of short routes and look to make plays with the ball in their hands.

The most dangerous receiver on the field for the Deacons may actually be TE Cam Serigne. He has 17 catches for 233 yards, and leads the team with almost 14 yards per catch. Lewis and Serigne led the team last year with 47 and 46 catches respectively. Lewis is also dangerous and does have some big play ability.

The Deacons’ OL is young and not very good. There are two seniors and three sophomores. This is the weak spot on the unit, and a big reason why they rank near the bottom of the nation in offense. OC Josh Harris has been starting for four years, but only moved to center last year. He is the top player on the unit, but he simply can’t hold it all together for the team. As a team, they’ve averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. They’ve also given up 18 sacks, which isn’t good especially considering they run much more than they throw.

This is the worst offense the Hoos will face this year. As well as the defense played last week, they could completely shut down Wake Forest. If the DL can get any push and keep Carney from getting going, it is going to be difficult for the Deacons to move the ball. Zach Bradshaw will, once again, act as a QB spy and try to keep either Wolford or Hinton from picking up big yards. That’ll be a tougher job with Hinton than with Wolford, but Hinton may not be 100% even if he returns.

We’ve seen a lot of single coverage from the Hoos, with pressure coming from the DBs. This will continue this week, because Wake is susceptible to pressure. And realistically, none of Wake’s WRs are particularly scary. The DBs will have to be on their game again, because a big play from Wake’s offense could turn the game.

Wake on Defense

DL: #53 DE Duke Ejiofor, #14 DE Wendell Brown

LB: #8 MLB Marquel Lee, #26 ROV Thomas Brown

DB: #3 SS Jessie Bates, #25 CB Brad Watson

So, if Wake’s offense is awful and yet they are 5-3, their defense must be pretty good, right? I mean, they held FSU to just 17 points in a loss, held Duke to just 14 at home in a win. They rank 44th in the country in total defense. That's pretty good. But they are 14th in scoring defense. That's very very good. Why? Because they are 16th in turnovers forced and they are 27th in sacks and 29th in TFLs. In other words, it’s a big play defense.

They also rank 33rd in rushing defense but 84th in passing defense and 64th in passing efficiency defense. This is the down side to a big play defense. There is a tendency to give up big plays as well. Around here, we call this The Jon Tenuta Effect.

What is strange is that Wake plays a defense designed to stop the pass. They, in essence, run a 4-2-5 base defense. They use a “Rover” position, which is essentially a combo WLB/SS hybrid. This year, that player is Brown, who has been all over the place. He’s (a distant) 3rd on the team in tackles, with 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, three passes broken up, one QB hurry and a forced fumble.

Ahead of Brown in tackles is Lee and Bates, who each have 50% more tackles that Brown. Bates also leads the team with 4 INTs. Really shows you how the strength of this team is up the middle. Even though their DTs aren’t all that big (290 each), it is not easy to run up the middle against this group. FSU’s Dalvin Cook, almost definitely the best RB they’ll face this year, rushed for 115 yards but at just 4.6 yards per rush (far below his 6 ypc season average). Lee and Bates combined for 19 tackles in that FSU game.

Against the pass, Wake isn’t quite so good. Yes, they have Ejiofor, who has 7.5 sacks and 12.5 TFLs (16th and 9th in the nation). The Hoos did a good job on Pitt’s Ejuan Price, who is a similar pass rusher. Price, though, had better players around him, who caused problems. If the Hoos can keep Ejiofor away from Benkert, that forces Wake to bring extra pass rushers. And that means single coverage for the Hoos’ WRs.

The Deacons’ top cover man is Brad Watson, who actually finished 2nd (tied) on the team in tackles last year, while also breaking up 16 passes along with 2 INTs. This year, he has 2 INTs but only 2 passes defended and he’s 5th on the team in tackles. Is that because team’s are avoiding him? Very possibly. His compatriot on the other side is true freshman Essang Bassey. Though Bassey hasn’t been too bad, Watson is going to be a mid-round draft pick this year, so it isn’t a tough decision to target the youngster.

Without a doubt, the Hoos will try to run the ball some. Edge runs are the most likely to be successful. That has been the strength of the Hoos ground game this year and it also happens to be the weakness of the Wake Forest run defense. But, as we’ve seen on many occasions this year, if the Hoos are successful offensively, it is going to be throwing the ball.

Wake’s defense is based on pressure. They want you make a mistake and they’ve proven very good at capitalizing on mistakes. It’s what their defense relies on. That’s why they’ll bring pressure. Nine different Deacons have sacks this year. Seventeen Deacons have TFLs. They are going to put pressure on the QB and the RBs. The Hoos, this year, have made far too many mistakes on offense. Penalties, sacks and interceptions have cost the Hoos dearly at times.

But really, this matchup looks pretty good for Benkert. The Wake DBs aren’t big, maxing at 6’0” and 200 pounds. The Hoos have bigger WRs. And unless the Deacons move Watson inside, Zaccheaus is going to have a big advantage in the slot.

If Benkert can get rid of the ball quickly, he’ll neutralize the Wake pass rush. That will force Wake to change tactics a bit and could even open up some holes in the running game. If the Hoos can catch Wake on a big blitz with a quick slant or a WR screen, they could hit a bit play of their own. Wake has given up 14 pass plays of over 35 yards. That is going to be the Hoos’ game plan. Hit a big play or two in the passing game and don’t make too many major mistakes.

Conclusion

This may be the only time this year that the Hoos truly have a talent advantage on the field. That includes Richmond, who was a veteran team with an All-American candidate at QB. Wake is a young team without much true gamebreaking talent and an inexperienced coaching staff. This game is full of advantages for the Hoos.

But, Wake has dealt with this before and come out on top 5 times already. Sure, they haven’t beaten anybody great, but they gave FSU a tough game and they crushed Syracuse (who won @UCONN, something the Hoos couldn’t do). So this game is no walk in the park.

If the Hoos can’t win this game, there’s a very good chance of a 2-10 season. Regardless of expectations and regardless of what Bronco Mendenhall’s staff have done, that would be a disaster. The Hoos simply need this game. And I think they’ll get it.

Prediction: Hoos 21, Wake Forest 10