Better Know An Opponent: Wake Forest

In advance of Saturday’s game vs. Wake Forest, we reached out to Kyle Tatich, senior writer for The Old Gold & Black, to get his thoughts on Saturday’s matchup.

OR: What are the general expectations for the Wake Forest football program from the fan base?

KT: In regard to this season, fans expected the program to continue to improve from its seven-win season in 2016 and anticipated it may have a chance to return to a bowl again this year. Fan expectations have grown since Dave Clawson took over for Jim Grobe in 2014. Wake Forest fans expect to be competitive in each game the team plays since the program has proven it can contend with anyone in the country.

For Saturday’s game in South Bend fans expect the Deacs to make it a game. Our defense ranks first in the country in tackles for loss (a product of Mike Elko) and our offense is coming off a historic performance against Louisville. Fans that remember the 2015 game in South Bend recall that the Deacs had the ball in the red zone four times and finished the game with just 7 points. If you take away the Notre Dame 98-yard touchdown run and if the Deacs could have finished in the red zone Wake Forest could have made its most recent visit to South Bend a bit more interesting.

Fans recognize the dominance the Irish have displayed this year but also realize their Demon Deacons have showed signs of greatness too. I would anticipate the majority of fans expect this to be a close game that ultimately comes down to a few plays.

OR: Coach Dave Clawson seemed to get the program going in the right direction last season and they have continued to play well this year. What is the fan base’s opinion on the job Clawson has done and what has been the difference over the last two years that has made Wake as competitive as they have been?

KT: To say fans are satisfied with how Clawson has turned this program around is an understatement. By redshirting a majority of its freshman Clawson and his staff are taking their time in developing players. Now in his fourth season, Clawson is beginning to see the benefits of being patient as the Deacs now boast greater depth and strength, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.

Last week Clawson, finally got over the hump and took down one of the ACC’s elites in Louisville, despite impressive attempts at Clemson and Florida State since really his second season. Fans are excited about Clawson and the future of this program and the philosophy of being patient and developing players has been a big part of recent success.

OR: Even in their losses this year, Wake has played tough. What does the team have to do to get over the hump and win a big game like this week?

KT: Wake Forest has outplayed every opponent its faced this year with exception to Clemson when the Deacs were playing without its starting quarterback John Wolford. When the Deacs traveled to Georgia Tech they dominated the first half and entered the half with a 21-13 lead. However, the defense became tired from playing nearly 20 minutes of the first half — ultimately causing Wake Forest to fall a part and give up long touchdown runs, allowing the game to slip away.

If Wake Forest were to get over the hump and pull off the upset in South Bend it would mean the time of possession was balanced in the first half (the defense would be better rested for the second half) and the offense would have executed when it had red zone opportunities.

As I mentioned before, the Deacs had four red zone trips in 2015 when facing Notre Dame in South Bend and finished with just 7 points. Quarterback John Wolford surely hasn’t forgotten about those missed opportunities from two years ago and I would expect that to be a point of emphasis on Saturday.

OR: Wake Forest is No. 1 in the country in tackles for loss, but rank 84th in rushing defense. Could you explain how that’s possible? Is it a feast or famine defense?

KT: This is a great question. By leading in the tackles for loss in this category the Deacs should be better than 84th in rushing defense but the problem is Wake Forest has been vulnerable to giving up big plays. Georgia Tech had touchdown runs of 42, 49 and 70 yards and rushed for a total of 427 yards on the ground in total. Granted, the Yellow Jackets carried the ball 66 times in the game, Wake Forest struggled to contain one of the better rushing offenses in the country — which clearly did not help its rushing defense statistic.
The Wake Forest defense has been effective against the run when it has rest. But this defense gets tired throughout the course of the game and that’s where mistakes happen. It may be a feast in the earlier part of the game, but sometimes its more of a famine as the third and fourth quarters come along. 

OR: After not playing until 2011, this will be the fourth matchup in seven years between Wake and ND. How is this series viewed from Wake Forest’s perspective?

KT: Wake Forest fans love this series as it is an opportunity to play against one of the premier programs in college football history, just as much as its a meeting between two highly regarded academic institutions. Now with the element of playing against Mike Elko, Wake Forest has a connection to the Irish that goes beyond what it exclusively used to be — the element that our president, Nathan O. Hatch, used to be the provost at Notre Dame.

OR: Obviously the major story line heading into this week is Mike Elko facing his former team. Are Elko’s fingerprints still on the Wake defense? And who do you think has an advantage: Elko knowing Wake’s personnel or Wake knowing Elko’s scheme inside and out?

KT: Elko built this defense. He was instrumental in the philosophy of being patient and developing players over time. It has certainly paid off as Elko helped CB Kevin Johnson get drafted in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, while also helping LBs Marquel Lee and Brandon Chubb get to the next level. The Wake Forest defense has one of the best defensive lines in the ACC, if not the country. It has the most tackles for loss in the country while also taking down Lamar Jackson six times this Saturday, a season high for the Cardinals.

It’s hard to say who has the advantage here as it will be a bit of a chess match since no opposing defensive coordinator knows the Wake Forest offense better than Elko, just as no offense knows Elko’s defensive schemes better than the Demon Deacons. To answer your question, I really don’t know who has the advantage here. It will be interesting to watch.

OR: Wake Forest announced they have some injuries at crucial positions for Saturday. How will that effect the gameplan and how see the game playing out Saturday? Prediction?

KT: Freshman wide receiver Greg Dortch who dominated Louisville last week with four touchdown is out for the season. And on the defensive side of the ball our leader in the secondary, Jesse Bates is out with an injury. Both are tremendous losses for the Demon Deacons and it will be hard to replace them. Expect Tabari Hines to fill in for Dortch at the position of slot receiver and have a big day. Another interesting thing to look out for is to see if Wake Forest utilizes backup quarterback Kendall Hinton in any way. He is one of the best athletes on the team and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get thrown into the offense in some capacity.

Prediction: When Wake Forest travels to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday expect Wolford to be fully aware that in his last visit to South Bend his offense scored just once in four red zone trips. Finishing drives will be an emphasis in this one, and if it happens, Wake Forest will pull off the upset.

Despite the odds, I am going with the Deacons. Wolford will lead Wake Forest to one of the greatest upsets in program history and takes down Notre Dame 26-20. I was in South Bend two years ago when the Deacs took on then-ranked No. 4 Notre Dame and while this is a completely different Irish team, I think the Deacs are ready for a monumental win. Moreover, I see this as a trap game for the Irish who could fall guilty to overlooking the Deacs by looking ahead to their trip to Miami or season finale at Stanford.

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