After a tumultuous week of Clemson quarterbacks, a dominating rushing performance by Travis Etienne, and second half Chase Brice heroics, the Clemson Tigers look to take care of a competitive yet vulnerable Wake Forest Demon Deacon team in Winston-Salem.
At 3-2, Wake Forest has seen its usual share of ups and downs. The Demon Deacons showed signs of life on offense in their game against Boston College (whom many considered the team best suited to give Clemson a hard time) in a 41-34 loss. On the other side, they also struggled against the likes of Tulane, squeaking by with a 23-17 OT victory. The problems with Wake Forest have been particularly disastrous on the defensive side of the ball, as they surrendered 97 points in consecutive losses to the Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the latter of which won handily 56-27. This prompted the Demon Deacons to fire defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel, who had come on to replace Mike Elko, who departed (coincidentally enough) for Notre Dame before leaving South Bend for Texas A&M.
As a result, Wake Forest is depending on defensive analyst Tim Gilmore to handle the defense while splitting the responsibilities among the rest of the staff. This patchwork job is a lot to handle for a staff that isn’t even midway through the season. The Demon Deacons rank 117th in total defense, surrendering 461 yards per game and giving up 31.6 points per game. Additionally, they rank 114th in passing defense (271.6 yards per game) and 107th in rushing defense (189.6 yards per game). With such a porous defense, it’s difficult to signal out any particular players to take note of, as much of Wake Forest’s strength as a team lies in its offense.
Wake Forest’s production and positives as a unit come largely from the offensive side of the ball, where they rank 16th in total offense, putting up 488 yards per game. They are particularly effective in the running game, where they are 17th with modest 244.4 yards per game on the ground. Their offense is led primarily by running back Cade Carney, who leads the team with 555 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry Carney is the team’s best rusher, with Matt Colburn second with 262 yards and two touchdowns.
Throwing the football is perhaps where the Demon Deacons are a little behind, though it has been productive enough given the strength of their running game. Wake Forest is led by freshman quarterback Sam Hartman, who has thrown for 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Deacons are 62nd in passing yards with 243.2 yards per game, and it’s clear that the emphasis of their offense is to rely on their running game as their quarterback continues to develop. Listed at 6’1, 185 pounds, Hartman doesn’t quite the have ideal size or frame, but is shifty and mobile enough to escape the pocket. He is the team’s third-leading rusher with 208 yards, so Clemson’s defense must contend with his ability to escape the pocket.
Wake’s primary threat at receiver has been RS sophomore slot receiver Greg Dortch, who leads the team with 555 receiving yards and five touchdowns. At 5’9, 175 pounds, Dortch isn’t a large imposing target, but is one of the best in the ACC.
If the game against Syracuse exposed Clemson to something it’s two things: that riding with quarterback Trevor Lawrence (who looks on track to start after being cleared to practice and being listed on the team’s depth chart for the game) will have its growing pains, and that the Clemson offense might need to rely on its 2017 strength as Lawrence develops: its running game. Putting up 294 rushing yards and defeating Syracuse with former third-stringer Chase Brice was telling about Clemson’s need to lean more on its ground game to better establish its passing game and protect its quarterbacks.
Wake Forest’s porous defense should provide an opportunity for Lawrence to get on track and for Clemson to re-establish an identity for explosive plays in the ground game. Travis Etienne clearly drives the Clemson offense in this front, while Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice continue proving valuable as capable pieces in driving a rushing attack that now ranks 20th in the country with an average of 242.8 yards per game. Hopefully, these three sent a clear message to the offensive coaching staff about a bigger need to run the football.
The offensive line clearly responded and opened holes once the Tigers committed to running the football. Pass protection has been inconsistent this season, especially in the interior of the line at center and right guard, so a return to the ground could alleviate team’s increasing willingness to exploit it. Against a struggling Wake Forest defense, there is opportunity for the Clemson receiving corps to have itself another good day.
Riding momentum off of the Syracuse game and the good news regarding Lawrence’s health, Clemson has an opportunity to make further progress under their freshman quarterback prior to their bye week.