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IT’S A TRAP GAME: Wake Forest Defense vs. Clemson

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NCAA Football: Florida State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Homecoming! A chance to relax and enjoy the early fall weather against a cupcake opponent. Right? No. Rain is in the forecast, and Wake Forest is surprisingly good. While still facing an enormous talent deficit, the talent on campus has steadily increased since Dave Clawson arrived in 2014. Wake held FSU to a virtual stalemate a week ago before succumbing to a late TD pass, but largely outplayed a Noles squad seeking its first win. Clemson, of course, is fresh off another dominant road win in prime time. A close game on Saturday doesn’t equal a letdown; it’s almost expected against an ever-improving Wake program.

This week screams “trap game” to me. Coach Swinney has rightfully sassed the media, students, and fans alike over our complacency, which I admit has seeped into my system. I can’t even cook up an opening monologue/rant in which I carry a ridiculous metaphor to strange lengths, which readers know by now is how I gauge my pregame hype level.

Just kidding. Of course I can. A new Star Wars trailer drops this coming Monday night, our article comments have been littered with Star Wars gifs all week, and I’ve already alluded to the dreaded trap. What else is a nerd to do?

FOLKS, everyone has already penciled us in for Atlanta for Clemson vs Bama III; we are indeed better than everyone left on the schedule. But what did we learn from the first few minutes in the clip above? Complacency gets you beaten. Is it already written Clemson can produce an encore a mere month into the season, just because we already blew up the first Death Star?

It shouldn’t be. Clemson still has warts and Wake Forest is another year better under Clawson. Even if Wake proves noncompetitive Saturday, give credit to Dabo for shaking us from our lazy arrogance before we fly straight into a trap game.


New defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel brings a similar philosophy to Winston-Salem as did former coordinator Mike Elko, with his aggressive 4-3 and its extremely active secondary. Early returns have been outstanding, though tough competition hasn’t exactly been front-loaded on Wake’s schedule. FSU is a shell of its former self, but Wake still manhandled a talented offense last week with the very same defensive approach I expect they’ll throw at Clemson. Don’t be surprised if this game resembles Clemson vs. Boston College from two weeks ago, when the Eagles played tight zone to make life hard on Kelly Bryant while its underrated safeties flew in for run support.

The first thing you’ll notice when watching Wake Forest is an active defensive line led by defensive end Duke Ejiofor. He’s the outside threat who absolutely abused FSU with inside moves, but it wasn’t just Ejiofor; Wake found penetration from its tackles and really kept FSU in a rut until the final minute. Next you’ll notice safeties who fill well against the run in Cameron Glenn and Jessie Bates. This is a surprisingly athletic defense; a product of Clawson raising Wake’s recruiting profile to complement the sort of experience and smarts we’ve long come to expect from players in Wake’s system.

Welcome to 2017, when Wake Forest has the athletes to abuse an FSU front and split double teams! Get to know Ejiofor, because Mitch Hyatt will be in for a fight against this man:

Against FSU’s struggling offensive line and new QB, Wake chose two overarching strategies: First, a lot of cover 4 (aka quarters) with shallow safeties, who were in prime position to fill gaps against an offense they (correctly) figured wouldn’t do much through the air.

Cover 4 allowed BC to play as aggressively in zone as they normally do in man coverage; its corners pressed to take away Clemson’s screens and its safeties quickly filled run lanes; deep shots to receivers outside had safety help. Wake will look to replicate this on Saturday, especially since it worked so well against FSU:

In past years when I watched Wake, I saw a lot of disguised coverages. Now Wake has enough talent/confidence to show their hand (obvious cover 4) against FSU. What a time!

Second, Wake used cover 3 blitzes designed to present an eight man front in an effort to overwhelm a run-first offense behind an already poor offensive line; with plenty of pressure looks from various angles:

And here’s a disguise! Watch Wake shift from a cover 4 look to the actual cover 3 nickel fire off the edge at the snap.

These two looks are actually how I would defend Kelly Bryant from here on; he’s a much better quarterback against man coverage (both because the reads are simpler and he has more room to gain yardage on the ground) and BC provided an excellent blueprint to contain him. Looks which Wake, conveniently, found quite successful last weekend. Wake will try and keep everything in front of them with tight cover 4, and hope disguised pressure will throw off Bryant’s deep ball when their corners are 1v1 in a cover 3 blitz. I expect a better game from Bryant than the one he had against BC though since he is prepared for zone this time around; otherwise, this could prove far more frustrating than BC since Wake is a much better team.

Make no mistake, this likely won’t be quite your typical homecoming cakewalk; Wake has a good quarterback and stingy defense. Ultimately though Clemson is too talented to lose at home to Wake as long as Clemson is focused, and QB John Wolford can’t keep doing everything himself against an even better defense than he faced in FSU. Clemson should avoid the trap.

Clemson 31, Wake 10