Head to head: Wake Forest
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, November 3, 2017
Demon Deacons Passing
Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford looks like he may have taken a major step forward as a passer for his senior season, with his numbers skyrocketing from last season in just about every measure. Last week was the clear highlight of Wolford’s season, as he went 28-for-34, throwing for 465 yards, five touchdown passes and no interceptions against Louisville, bringing him to an impressive 15 passing touchdowns with only two interceptions this year.
But that improvement may not be entirely Wolford’s doing. It coincides with redshirt-freshman receiver Greg Dortch’s introduction into the Demon Deacons’ offense. And it’s been clear that Dortch immediately became Wolford’s favorite target, racking up 53 receptions for 722 yards and an ACC-leading nine touchdowns, including four against the Cardinals. But Dortch underwent season-ending abdominal surgery after that game, leaving the Demon Deacons passing attack in question.
The Irish defense has proven adept at forcing turnovers — making NC State senior quarterback Ryan Finley throw his first pick of the season last week — but has given up 232.5 passing yards per game, placing them in the bottom half of the country. The Demon Deacons passing attack without Dortch will be much weaker, but 6-foot-5 sophomore wide receiver Scotty Washington may still cause trouble.
Demon Deacons Rushing
The combined attack of Wolford, redshirt-freshman running back Akeem Byrd and junior running back Matt Colburn II has led the Demon Deacons to 171 yards per game. Those numbers may be middling, but they represent an impressive improvement under heach coach Dave Clawson for a program that was completely incapable of running the ball when he arrived, falling short of 500 total rushing yards in his first season. The Demon Deacons’ average this year would be their highest rushing average since 2005.
But the Irish have made much better rushing attacks look like the impotent attacks of Jim Grobe’s later years at Wake Forest — particularly in the last three outings, in which North Carolina, USC and NC State were all held under 100 yards, bringing Irish opponents to an average of just 116.6 yards per game and 3.4 yards per attempt. Even more impressive, the Irish defense has still allowed only one rushing touchdown this year.
Making matters worse for the Demon Deacons is that Byrd, who has rushed for 334 yards on 60 carries, left last week’s win over Louisville with a head injury and is questionable to play.
Edge: Notre Dame
Demon Deacons Offensive Coaching
There may have been some early struggles, as the Demon Deacons offenses in 2014 and 2015 were anemic, but now that Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero have been able to work with their own recruits, Wake Forest’s offense has come on significantly from Jim Grobe’s units, which consistently struggled to put up points.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko will face his former school, having spent three years at the same position under Clawson. That familiarity may give the Demon Deacons more of a chance, but Elko’s record this season with a defense that struggled the year before speaks for itself, as he has still not given up more than 20 points in a game at Notre Dame. Experience with Elko may not be enough for Clawson.
Edge: Notre Dame
Demon Deacons Special Teams
Wake Forest redshirt-senior kicker Mike Weaver is 11-of-13 on field goals this season but has rarely been tested, attempting only one kick of 40 or more yards: a miss from 50 yards out. While his field goal kicking has been solid, he has missed two extra points this year.
Sophomore punter Dom Maggio earned freshman All-American honors last season and has one of the most powerful legs in the nation with a career-high 80-yard punt and a season-high 61-yard punt.
Juniors C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke have been solid but unspectacular in returns, avoiding turnovers but rarely creating big returns.
The Irish have been excellent in almost every part of the game this season, but continue to struggle to move the ball through the air.
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush may have passed for multiple touchdowns and no interceptions for the third consecutive week, but accuracy remains a problem — with a completion percentage of 51.8 — and he has rarely been asked to throw the ball, with his last 20-attempt game coming in Week 4 at Michigan State. While he has been good enough lately to expose defenses who commit too hard to the run, passing as a standalone trait is still a weakness.
The Demon Deacons pass defense has been strong this year, with senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor recording seven sacks, good for second in the ACC. The team is also ranked in the top-20 in the nation in completion percentage allowed, at just 51.9 percent, and passer rating allowed, at 108.4.
Edge: Wake Forest
Before the Irish hosted North Carolina State last week, the Wolfpack were the nation’s No. 6 rushing defense. Now, they rank 19th. Running for over 300 yards against one of the best run defenses in the nation is the latest in the long line of evidence that the Irish run game is one of the best in the country, with Notre Dame ranking sixth in rushing yards gained.
The Demon Deacons have not looked as good against the run as they have against the pass, giving up 183 yards per game, though that may be inflated by playing one of the run-heaviest slates in the country, including Clemson, Georgia Tech and Louisville in their last three games. But even if they’re better than the numbers indicate, it’s unlikely the Demon Deacons are good enough to stop junior running back Josh Adams and the Irish ground game.
Edge: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Coaching
After some questions in adjusting to a run-heavy attack early in the season, offensive coordinator Chip Long now appears to have firmly adapted the Irish offense to its personnel.
The Demon Deacon defense under defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel may still prove to be a challenge, however. Sawvel led Minnesota’s defense to No. 21 in the nation in points allowed per game, and despite the challenge of following Elko at Wake Forest, has the Demon Deacons currently allowing just over 21 points. His defense has struggled to force turnovers, however, recording just 10 this year, which could be a problem against a team with the talent the Irish bring.
Irish Special Teams
The Irish success in the red zone this season means that junior kicker Justin Yoon continues to be rarely called-upon, still at 7-for-10 on the season and continuing to leave fans unsure if his disappointing showing more than two months ago against Temple was meaningful or a fluke. His 43-of-43 record on extra points suggests it may be the latter.
A blocked punt for a touchdown put the Irish behind against NC State, and although that may prove to be a one-off, senior Tyler Newsome’s punting for the remainder of the game was below his usual standard. Yoon’s kickoffs also appeared to have taken a step back, with one kick landing out of bounds.
Dortch was the Demon Deacons returner of both kicks and punts this season, meaning Wake Forest will use a less-experienced returner Saturday.
Edge: Notre Dame