Saturday is a celebratory Senior Day in Death Valley for what will soon be the winningest class in Clemson history. A division championship wrapped up; eyes on the state and conference titles before the ultimate prize. I'll miss my first home game in nearly a decade, but it is a day for the rest of you to celebrate these seniors, the military, and the wonderful success of the 2015 season thus far. Most of all, Saturday should be a healthy (both literally and in terms of margin) victory for the top-ranked Clemson Tigers.
Wake Forest offers the cure for a less than stellar Clemson defense of late, which flirted with disaster against Syracuse. Then again, am I truly confident after Syracuse should have floundered rather than strain us? The difference lies in Wake's one-dimensionality, which stems from a poor offensive line.
Wake brings another two-quarterback system into its contest against Clemson. Much like the situations at Louisville and South Carolina, the different styles QBs John Wolford and Kendall Hinton bring could not be more different: a harried pocket passer and an erratic zone read athlete, respectively. After Wake's impressive defensive performance against Notre Dame last week, Wake's defense is the focus of this column -- after a quick primer on the offense.
Although backup QB Hinton was somehow Wake's leading rusher until last week (he currently trails leading rusher Tyler Bell by 7 yards), I will focus on Wolford since Wake under Hinton sticks to mostly inside zone read and play-action off of it. We've analyzed zone read and option plays ad nauseam this season and I want to stick with Wolford, who will take most of the snaps on Saturday. After the way we handled Syracuse and its version of the zone read, however, I expect Hinton will get more than a few chances as a change of pace.
The Wake offense looks largely the same with either quarterback: a 113 Shotgun base. Under Wolford most running plays are ineffective inside zone runs versus the slightly more effective zone read runs with Hinton. Like we saw in our matchup against Syracuse, Wake employs frequent jet motion in an effort to pull the linebackers out of position. I don't need to tell you this can be deadly against our linebackers. Watch the jet motion pull (#9) Jaylon Smith -- the most athletic linebacker in the country -- out of position on an inside power run:
Images courtesy of NBC and YouTube user Top Sports
Smith has the athleticism to recover and make the tackle anyway; Boulware and Goodson do not. Wake Forest isn't exactly known for good offensive line play and I expect our DL to have its way with them for the most part, but with our problems maintaining gap integrity, expect heavy doses of jet motion handoffs and fakes to pull our linebackers out of position and expose their lateral agility.
The passing game suffers from poor blocking, and most throws are short or intermediate rather than vertical. Wolford can make most of the throws asked of him and he has a surprisingly good group of receivers, but he won't have time to challenge Clemson through the air unless he beats the blitz across the middle, as he did extremely well here:
Clemson is prone to receivers working the middle of the field against its linebackers anyway, but particularly so when Boulware or Goodson blitz like Notre Dame did above. Wolford stood in and hit the open dig route just before the rush arrived.
Aside from further busts in run fits, there truly is little more Wake can do to find sustained success against the Clemson defense. Yes, really this time. This offense -- particularly its line -- is just what the doctor ordered before two worrisome games against the respective Carolinas.
Wake Held its Own Against Notre Dame's OL
Defensively, Wake Forest held Notre Dame to only 282 total yards -- 98 of which came on one run -- and 15 first downs. This was a sterling defensive effort against a top 4 team which Clemson barely held on against last month. Such an effort deserves a closer look, with a particular focus on whether it will translate to a Clemson offense which has put up 500+ yards in 6 straight games; coincidentally, every game since it faced Notre Dame.
Wake technically runs a 3-4 but it looks more like a 4-3 on standard downs, with the weak side linebacker on the LOS like a 4-3 DE -- the difference being he stands in a 2 point stance rather than 3. Wake dominated time of possession, but even when the Irish had the ball they didn't exactly light up the Deacons. Wake disguises its pressure well, evidenced below by a well-timed FS blitz which stuffed an open running lane:
Wake was not afraid to blitz its safeties from the start. Below, another FS blitz catches the WR unaware, who expected to seal the edge with a block on the corner:
The safety shoots the alley and sets the edge, allowing the linebacker and line flow to meet him at the ball carrier. You'll notice that on both of the safety blitzes shown above, Wake did not "tip its hand" before the snap; the safeties stayed at normal depth and only fired towards the LOS at the snap. This is noteworthy against Deshaun Watson, a QB who excels at blitz recognition.
Below you'll see Wake's most impressive blitz of the day. Again, they disguised the boundary corner blitz until ND was too rushed by the play clock to see Wake reveal it, and Wake brought an overload from the weak side linebacker and boundary corner:
As I mentioned above, Wake's dedication to disguising its pressure is problematic. Clemson's defense will generally show pressure from various alignments and make the opposition guess from where it will come; Wake will disguise either until the snap, or until it's too late for the offense to adjust, like above. This will test our offense's knowledge and preparation. We will see early in the game if our boys know Wake's tendencies. This style of blitz takes longer to cause pressure, and if Watson identifies it, he can shred it.
In addition to effective blitzes, Wake actually saw its linemen beat the Irish OL on more than one occasion -- the same Irish OL which more than handled Clemson's pass rush:
That Wake fared surprisingly well against one of the best offensive lines in the country is a cause for concern; particularly since Clemson misses Tyrone Crowder to pave the way for Wayne Gallman. Clemson's DL completely shut down the Irish running game but could not get pressure on Kizer, particularly late in the game when Kizer picked us apart underneath. Wake beat this same line one on-one in multiple dropbacks.
This isn't a particularly elaborate blitz; the LT seemingly abandoned his block for no reason. He either knew he was beaten or thought the back would free him to protect the middle of the pocket, which I find highly unlikely. Either way, pressure got there. Wake's front will cause problems for a depleted Clemson OL which is not yet on the level of Notre Dame's, especially without Crowder.
The top priority on Saturday is to build a comfortable lead early, sustain it, and get the starters off the field by the 4th quarter. We flirted with disaster against Syracuse not only on the scoreboard, but with a few scary injuries to irreplaceable players late in the game when we should've been in garbage time.
If last week is any indication, Wake will bring a solid defense into Death Valley and force us to execute. Clemson's defense should perform at the level we saw earlier this year against an offense which packs little punch. It is past time to correct the busts, past time to build depth at linebacker and in the secondary. Wake Forest in Death Valley, on Senior Day should allow Clemson the chance to do so, and it couldn't happen soon enough.
Truly, the most important games of the season lie before us. North Carolina will make this defense pay if we don't shape up, and even South Carolina (God forbid) is capable with a transcendent performance. Sharp focus and execution are necessary now more than ever. I expect to see both on Saturday, but if we don't...don't buy those playoff tickets just yet.