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Wake Forest & Defense: Underrated, but Vulnerable

Wake Forest v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Look at you Sickos reading about the cringe side of this matchup. If you want to see how a breakneck offense might attack an elite defense, you’re in the wrong place; this is where we endure the inverse. Duly, those who wander here may expect plenty of derision or fatalism in a space highlighting a moveable object against a stoppable force: the Wake Forest defense vs Clemson offense.

I hope you’ll forgive that trope since this side of the ball isn’t quite the pillow fight statistics suggest. There is some merit to the argument Wake’s defense is underrated because it has to defend so many snaps by design. How Wake defends complements their offense and gets them the ball back sooner rather than later by turnover and kickoff return alike.

This is going to be a tough game. Any optimism I find in how well Clemson has stifled Wake, Sam Hartman, and their slow mesh over the years with dominant defensive line play is largely undone when I look toward Clemson’s offense against even such a statistically modest defense (Wake is ranked deep into the bottom half of every advanced statistic). Play cleanly and you can blister Wake; play like the Clemson offense of late and you may find yourself with 450 yards and 5 turnovers in a marathon of a 45-28 loss.

Now in his third year running Wake’s defense, Lyle Hemphill has settled in and created a defensive unit Dave Clawson can live with. They’re much improved on this side of the ball from last year, even with Boogie Basham now in the NFL, and they play aggressive, smart football like only an experienced back seven can.

The overarching philosophy Hemphill employs is loosely cover 4-based, a typical 2-high soft shell behind a 40 front, which is your classic bend but don’t break alignment. As we know, cover 4 can still be plenty aggressive with smart safeties and competent corners, and Wake will more often than not keep their safeties down a bit closer to the box even in single-high coverages. Additionally Wake likes to play more man (though not press) coverage than under former coordinator Mike Elko in particular, which is likely a solid strategy against Clemson’s backup receivers and immobile QB.

Theirs is a prudent approach due to Wake’s traditionally stronger player development than talent acquisition; from a softer shell, smarter defenders can ball-hawk with their eyes in front and rally to the ball. It’s quite vulnerable to RPO manipulation though, and should encourage DJ Uiagalelei into more than a handful of bubble screen tags on called run plays (much to our chagrin) and RPO skinny posts (much to our delight if he is accurate).

Side note, yeah Clemson doesn’t run the ball enough and we’re sick of screens when WRs can’t block, but those quick passes are called runs which have a pass option for DJ to flip out if there’s a heavy box or single matchups outside. Frustrating, but not incorrect in this offense...

Speaking of weaknesses and running the ball, yeah, Wake is both statistically and in actuality not an inspiring run defense. The line isn’t great and the linebackers often over-pursue their gaps chasing any sort of run action. Will that matter given Clemson’s own struggles along the interior line and propensity to outsmart itself from running the ball when it has been working? I can’t say it will, and I have resigned myself to reading more post-game quotes where Tony Elliott once again laments not running the ball more.

Because on paper and film, the Deacs’ greatest weakness is indeed run defense. Stats never paint the full picture, but much has to do with a line which can’t hold the point of attack and gets sealed out of running lanes frequently, and those linebackers who run themselves out of position; by design they track orbit and jet motion and are prone to pre-and-post snap manipulation. It would be a welcome turn of events if either of those components worked their way back into the Clemson playbook!

It isn’t just on the ground where motion out-leverages gap and coverage responsibilities, but of course through the air as well. This isn’t even a RPO, it’s a simple play-action wheel we’ve seen Clemson run plenty of times. The jet motion opens it up, showing just how many plays are there for the taking within Clemson’s own scheme:

I’m not used to seeing as much reckless speed at Wake as they boast at the linebacker position. No, they aren’t blue chip guys with off the chart athleticism, but they cover lateral ground a LOT faster than what Clemson trots out at Mike or Will. They’re quick to jump any run action (notice a theme here?) given the underwhelming line play in front of them, and are especially susceptible when they let a man coverage responsibility sneak behind them.

If there is a player worth highlighting up front — especially given Clemson’s leaky and easily befuddled interior — it’s defensive tackle #11 Miles Fox. Usually aligned in 2i technique, he is their only lineman with the motor and ability to work down the line across multiple blockers.

There are more variables and possible outcomes going into this game than any ACC contest I can remember in recent years. Or I may just be covering for my shattered ego since I can’t smugly tell you how a 2021 Clemson game will unfold! Nothing has been easy even when Clemson plays reasonably well on offense, and Clemson certainly must play its best overall game to beat what honestly has been the strongest team in the league all season.

Wake’s banged up DBs offer a shimmer of hope to put up some points over the top like NC State did, right? Well, look at Clemson’s injury report and there you will find your “pillow fight” matchup: out on the perimeter when Clemson has the ball (that’s how we’ve blocked at receiver this year after all). Wake is still solid overall, if not great anywhere defensively, but Clemson hasn’t shown much ability to execute even when advantages exist. It’s easy then to put all hopes back on a defense which has completely destroyed Wake’s offense in every contest since Clawson arrived.

Surely Brent Venables will do it again, right? He has the defensive line to smother their slow mesh like always, and better corners and safeties than a year ago to counter the best WRs in the league. Something has to give here and Las Vegas backs Venables, but Hartman and company might be the most experienced and smartest offense in the nation right now, and trust what they do even against Venables.

Clemson seemingly has to play ball control but Wake hasn’t allowed that much offensive efficiency relative to their numbers (remember, everything is geared to maximize snaps for their offense). Stretch and counter handoffs to the backs, and back shoulder openings and deep post manipulations to the Collins receivers will be there for the taking. Find some way to get a push on a defensive line which should be vulnerable before the linebackers are taken into account, and Clemson has a great shot to put enough on the board to win this. Really, they should.

I alluded to this earlier, but this cannot be yet another week where Elliott regrets not running enough or says Wake’s structure forced him to throw. This is a game where you have to dictate to the defense at long last, not just because of where Wake is weakest, but to finally give some cover to a defense running on fumes in part because of its own ineffective offense.

Clemson has to force feed Shipley, Pace, and Mafah, or hope DJ’s knee allows him to be enough of a threat to keep the ball (and that’s before even accounting for whether it’s healthy enough to allow proper throwing mechanics). Run-heavy or not, DJ’s knee will make or break the day unless the offensive line delivers a performance far above their own ability to date. Neither of which give me the most confidence.

Clemson has to sniff 30 points Saturday. Normally that’s plenty against an opponent which has to air it out to beat Venables, and that quarterback is dead on arrival. Letting Hartman cook is already Wake’s modus operandi though; even with Hartman’s alarming lack of arm strength, they lead the nation in deep balls completed. Shut down their slow mesh and the entire offense falls apart with it; Hartman dropping back to throw won’t go nearly as well as his post-mesh climb and lob to a receiver open in single coverage. That’s an oversimplification, sure, and Clawson will have wrinkles, but smother the mesh and even the constraints which complement the base plays eventually fail.

Is this the week Clemson’s young talent finally begins to mature after taking a season full of lumps? I thought so in Louisville and then another wave of injuries struck. Or will Wake’s experienced, developed playmakers keep a young, thin team at arm’s reach? Given a healthier roster, I’d lean heavily toward the former, but even those able to play Saturday are hobbled; look no further than at quarterback.

I trust Venables to win another round against Clawson and Hartman. But an offense dependent upon quarterback mobility to run its best plays, missing even more of its best players now to boot, seems too tall a task even though Wake isn’t the picture of health nor a great defense themselves. EVERYTHING hinges on DJ’s knee, and that’s bad news; I can’t trust DJ’s knee is as healthy as the staff justifiably wants to convey.

Though I’m pleasantly surprised to see how extremely well Clemson matches up against Wake’s defense, Clemson is too young, beaten up, and inconsistent to take what’s there. Wake isn’t; they’ll make more of their far fewer opportunities.

Wake 27, Clemson 23