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Wake Forest and the Air Raid RPO

Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

So begins the most crucial stretch in the Atlantic Division after three successive — and successful! — tuneups in the opening weeks for the Clemson Tigers. This weekend, it’s a trip to Winston-Salem to meet with Wake Forest and father time himself, Sam Hartman.

This may surprise most of you given Hartman’s return and Clemson’s relatively poor defending of late, but I’m more confident ahead of this game than I expected to be a couple of weeks ago. The offense’s growth in each game, Wake’s iffy start to year, and plainly, Wake’s perpetual difficulty in matching up against the Clemson defense does not appear any easier when we look at Wake’s personnel and what they bring into this contest.

Longtime readers will be well-versed in Wake’s slow mesh RPO offense by now, and with Hartman running the show again this is still a tough, tricky contest. This isn’t quite the same Wake unit which ran through the ACC Atlantic before falling to Clemson in a rather emphatic blowout last year, though. The gist of this game every year has been Clemson’s defensive line smothering the slow mesh no matter Hartman’s decisions, and at the surface this appears to be on tap in 2022 as well.

We want to go beyond the surface though, and I’ve gleaned Wake’s film since Hartman returned to give us that closer look.

Everything begins of course with the slow mesh RPO. Wake is unique with their take on what is now a universal concept in two glaring ways: first, the obviously slow mesh point, or in layman’s terms, the patience in the QB’s decision to either give to the running back or pull it and find a receiver until the latest possible moment. Second, and of particular danger, is the rate in which Wake throws deep on their RPOs.

For most other offenses, a RPO pass is quick because you don’t want your linemen penalized for getting downfield on a passing play (remember, offensive linemen run block on RPO calls and thus often catch flags for getting past the line of scrimmage on RPO passes). Wake’s line is adept at not getting too far downfield and remaining engaged with their blocks so if they do get too far so they aren’t flagged.

This allows Wake to implement the air raid into an RPO structure, thereby manipulating safeties in deep coverage and not just linebackers or alley defenders underneath. When Hartman has time, it is so lethal it seems like cheating. The free safety above froze on the run action, the corner was beaten, and the only difference between a touchdown and an incompletion in the play above was Hartman’s underthrow.

That receiver getting open? You’ll remember AT Perry, the top WR in the ACC and by far the biggest concern in the game particularly when we look at Clemson’s mounting injuries in the secondary. The first play of the very next drive, Wake wanted it again, and this time they hit it:

Holding the ball in the backfield this long requires the offensive line do just enough to keep Hartman clean while he manipulates the back end. The run option in the slow mesh is not about moving the defensive line, but sneaking the running back through the line after forcing the linebackers and safeties to commit elsewhere. The good news for Clemson? Wake’s offensive line this year hasn’t been up to this modest task, and that’s before facing what may at last be a fully healthy Clemson defensive line.

This in a nutshell is why Clemson has routinely blown out Wake over the last decade, even as they’ve improved under Dave Clawson: Clemson’s defensive front is the perfect foil to Wake’s style.

Wake hasn’t been able to run the ball against VMI, Vanderbilt, or Liberty to date — none of which inspire much fear up front. The line is such a weakness this year that Wake almost exclusively runs wildcat in short yardage, was stonewalled by Vandy and Liberty alike at the goal line multiple times, and even opted to throw on 4th and 1 when trailing Liberty in the 3rd quarter.

Dave Clawson knows this long-running mismatch of course, but he knows he has serious matchup advantages out wide. I would expect Wake to run less RPO if it isn’t working early or if they fall behind like a year ago. Furman and Louisiana Tech have shown Clemson’s secondary is vulnerable to slants and corner flat combos with poor man coverage and much too soft zone coverage (gulp, I just described NC State’s entire offense a week early), but Wake makes its living on deep balls to great receivers. Clemson’s corners have a long day ahead whether it’s an RPO or a dropback; pass defense has to begin up front against a poor line and an offense which asks the QB to hold the ball for ages no matter the call.

Though Hartman doesn’t have arm strength which will translate to the NFL, he knows where to go with the ball, has a quick compact release, and has nightmare receivers to feast on an undermanned secondary. Wake won’t change who they are, and have plenty of misdirection and rollouts in their arsenal to buy space and time, but smother the slow mesh like usual with the defensive front and it’ll take a Perry & co. monster game to keep the Wake offense moving. Even then, they’re always an explosive play waiting to happen.

I have concerns in covering Perry or Hartman making plays, but Wake has simply been awful at both preventing and overcoming pressure so far this season and nothing could better play into Clemson’s hands. Clemson’s banged-up secondary is a major concern, but three weeks of hard lessons and some returning starters should make enough difference, and Clemson will force Wake to drop back and take their chances against the secondary on Clemson’s terms instead of Wake’s. Taking this into account alongside Clemson’s offense finding its legs faster than Wake’s defense three games in — Wake has issues along both lines of scrimmage — and I like Clemson a fair bit more than Vegas seems to on Saturday.

Clemson 38, Wake 27