We are once again joined by Robert Reinhard, a Wake Forest graduate, Winston-Salem enthusiast, and former Wake Sports blog editor, to help us preview this huge ACC road game for the Tigers. There’s a lot to discuss as each team faces a ranked opponent for the first time this season so let’s jump right in.
Ryan: Welcome back to the blog, Robert. You’ve done this with us five or six times and this is the first time you’ve returned as the defending division winner so congratulations! The Tigers and Demon Deacons will meet for the 88th time on Saturday. Clemson has played only South Carolina, NC State, and Georgia Tech more. Wake Forest has played no out-of-state opponent more than Clemson. With the upcoming removal of ACC divisions, they will move from playing annually to playing semi-annually. I like the added variety, but some Clemson fans say Wake Forest is a classic opponent they hate to see left off. Aside from potentially getting an easier opponent, do you have any strong feelings about playing Clemson less frequently in the future?
Robert: Thank you for the kind words about the Deacs. Sad that Wake couldn’t bring home the ACC Championship, but still incredibly proud of them winning the Atlantic Division and going 11-3 last year. Wake Forest has now made bowl games in six consecutive seasons, which is double the previous school record, and Wake is well on its way to earning a seventh consecutive bowl berth. What Clawson has done here is truly remarkable, and we are living in the Golden Era of Wake Forest Football.
Now for your actual question, the main reason I’m excited to get Clemson off the rotation every year is simply that we don’t have to play one of the premier programs in the country every year. They are an extremely physical team, and that can have impacts that last beyond just the game against Clemson. I think Wake got a terrific draw in terms of Duke, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. Obviously some things in college football are cyclical, but that’s pretty favorable in terms of where things stand in the current landscape. Also, all of those schools are within driving distance, so it could make for a pretty good game day atmosphere in those series. Also, I fundamentally dislike divisions because I believe the two best teams in a conference should play in the title game. For a long period of time it was Clemson and FSU battling it out, and it was pretty clear that whoever won the game between those teams was going to beat the winner of the Coastal.
Ryan: Wake Forest is 3-0 and enjoying having QB Sam Hartman back sooner than anticipated. He put up 4,228 yards and 39 TDs yards last season. Those are some pretty silly numbers, but every time I watch him he looks mortal. He may post insane numbers against Army and Duke, but when I watch him against teams like Clemson, NC State, and Pittsburgh, it makes me wonder if those numbers are just empty calories. So, how good is Sam Hartman, really? Is he in sync after missing the opener with a medical issue?
Robert: Sam Hartman is a very good quarterback. Yes, the offensive system can make the numbers be video game like at times, but you don’t become the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (with 3/4th’s of a season still to go) by accident. I think he understands the strengths of his receivers, and is able to find the favorable matchups and get his skill guys the ball. He’s also able to make plays with his feet when the read presents itself. He has had some of his better games statistically against weaker opponents, but it’s not as though he only produces against weaker opponents. Yes, he had 3 INT’s against NC State last season, but he also led 2 4th quarter touchdown drives that went a very long way in clinching the Atlantic Division for Wake. I would say that he played better against Vanderbilt than he did against Liberty. He missed some throws that he normally wouldn’t against Liberty this past week, but I have no concerns about him moving forward.
Ryan: Wake Forest is ranked No. 21 in the country, but struggled with Liberty last Saturday. Hartman threw 2 INTs and the Deacs surrendered 36 points. Do you chalk that up to the team looking ahead to the Clemson game or do you have serious concerns?
Robert: I do think there’s something to be said about looking ahead to Clemson, and I did hear some post game comments that they took the game for granted a bit, but always great when you can emerge with a victory without playing your best. With that specific game we just could not run the ball, and that was concerning, though it hasn’t been as big of an issue so far this year, but it’s worth monitoring. I would say my biggest concern about us is that we are dealing with more offensive penalties than we have had in the past, specifically holds and false starts. We had holds that cost us a touchdown and a two-point conversion against VMI. Those types of penalties are usually drive killers, and a hold that ends up resulting in a punt could very well be the difference in a game.
Ryan: Some of the college football minds I respect have suggested that one reason Clemson has Wake Forest’s number (Clawson has never beat Swinney) is because the slow mesh system doesn’t work well against good defensive lines. That theory definitely looked true last year when the teams faced off, but the Demon Deacons also beat NC State last year and have beaten some talented teams in bowl games before. What do you think of their offensive system and what strategy do you expect Clemson to employ to stop it?
Robert: I think there’s some truth to that statement, though I would elevate “good defensive lines” to “great or elite defensive lines.” Wake has had very good offensive lines the past 5+ years, as they’ve produced a number of pros and routinely receive high marks in terms of the PFF grades, so those guys are definitely capable of providing substantial protection. I think the NC State example you gave is great one, as they’ve had some pretty strong defensive lines in Raleigh as of late, but Wake has won 4 out of the last 5 in that matchup. I would say in general that a great defensive line can throw basically any offensive system out of whack. I don’t know exactly what Clemson will do from a strategy standpoint, but I will be curious to see what potential wrinkles Wake uses to try and counter some of Clemson’s front.
Ryan: What one or two players or battles are the biggest X-factors that could swing the outcome of the game?
Robert: I think it’s going to be critical to limit Clemson’s rushing attack as best as Wake can. In looking back at last year’s box score, DJU only threw for 208 yards and had a QBR of 43.8, but Kobe Pace and Will Shipley each ran for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns. Wake’s defense left a lot to be desired last year, but I believe they’ve improved this year. I’ll be interested to see how Wake chooses to defend, and will see if they try to keep an extra man in the box and take their chances with our talented corners. So that’s one, and then red zone execution is going to be vital. Too many times this year Wake has gotten 3 instead of 7 once they get in the red zone. Clemson’s defense is stout, so when the Wake offense does get in the red zone, it has to make the most of those trips.
Ryan: Finally, the spread for this contest opened at Clemson -6.5. What’s your thoughts on that number and how the game will play out?
Robert: Very interesting number. I thought it might be a bit higher, but you do see a variety of projections depending on the advanced stats site that you choose. In SP+, you’re looking at a ~13 point spread on a neutral field, and then in Sagarin it’s closer to 6 on a neutral field, so this is basically right in the middle of those. Wake hasn’t been really even competitive in this series over the past decade. During Clawson’s tenure, the closest Wake has come has been two separate times losing by 2 touchdowns. You have to go back to 2011 to find a game that was within a touchdown, and I am still not over that game. Outside of playing at home, I think last season helped prepare Wake for this game in terms of playing big games, so I do think they will not be overwhelmed by the Clemson brand or the ABC noon timeslot. I’m excited to see what Saturday brings, but I do know that history isn’t on our side. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Thank you to Robert Reinhard for taking some time to share with us. If you’re on Twitter, give him a follow. He hates NC State as much as we do and gives good fair analysis on the rest of the ACC.