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Wake Forest football has newfound optimism, though old problems linger

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Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Progress has been slow for Dave Clawson who, like his fellow Dave and MAC transplant down the road, was greeted at his new job by a gutted roster. In the two years prior to Clawson's arrival, Wake Forest's offense went into decline, and he was stuck with the hideous rock-bottom portion of that decline in his first season. Thanks a lot, Jim Grobe!

Wake went 3-9 (1-7) in both of the last two seasons. But lo, what is this before us! Do mine eyes deceive, or have the Deacs indeed already exceeded that win total in 2016? While this team still has a lot of weak spots, at 4-0 they've reached a point where they can seriously consider the possibility of a bowl berth. (They still have Syracuse, BC, Army, and UVA to come--all four of them in Winston-Salem.)

According to Bill Connelly's metrics, there's now a 95% chance that Wake wins at least six games.

So it's all peaches 'n cream down Triad way, is it? Well, about that ...

Wake Forest S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 107 4.8 (115) 3.0 (127) 6.6 (88)
2016 Offense 98 4.9 (115) 4.2 (87) 6.4 (103)

One item at the top here: regardless of the quality of competition Wake Forest can give itself a hearty pat on the back for averaging 4+ per carry and 200 yards per game so far this season. Remember, this is the offense that, two years ago, ran for 479 yards all year long. They averaged 1.3 yards per carry as a team. That year, their leading rusher finished with 240 yards. At somewhere like Stanford, an allergy-riddled 12-year-old could have sneeze-propelled himself forward for more yardage than that over the course of 12 games.

Progress has been a painful crawl, as the '16 unit's current S&P+ rank illustrates, but at least the Deacs are no longer the worst offense in FBS. Hallelujah! With Miracle Max Dave presiding, we've found a pulse! Sure, sometimes John Wolford's arms won't move, but that's only because he's been mostly dead for two years.

Wolford again will be critical to any improvement the Deacs make--at least until Kendall Hinton gets back, but probably even then, too. Wake is among the nation's worst in the explosiveness and efficiency categories, thanks in part to an anemic passing game. Wolford's paltry 5.6 yards per pass attempt says pretty much everything that needs saying about that.

And now that the ground game is proving somewhat useful, they are leaning on it heavily. The Deacs are running the ball 70% of the time on standard downs (national average = 59%) and 45.7% of the time on passing downs (34.3% is the average there). Excluding sacks, Wake is averaging 46 running plays per game. Two years ago, the Deacs (when they were crazy-terrible, remember) averaged 28 running plays per game.

Taking the games out of the quarterback's hands has helped the Deacs navigate their schedule so far, but will this strategy remain tenable against higher-quality opponents? Most likely not to the same degree. And barring a couple more miracles, like Wolford magically turning a corner in October or Kendall Hinton becoming off-brand Lamar Jackson, Wake's offense figures to struggle scoring points from here on.

Wake Forest S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Defense 60 5.6 (64) 4.2 (55) 7.5 (84)
2016 Defense 24 5.0 (39) 2.7 (13) 7.2 (70)

The major force behind Wake Forest's start has been its defense, which has been good in three of the Deacs' four games. (Indiana rolled up 611 yards on 7.7 per play, but also threw five interceptions.) Kinda like State, Wake is living off a solid defensive front that has done well against the rush and also has a high havoc rate.

They're also giving up only three points per opponent trip inside the 40, which ranks seventh nationally. Their good turnover luck so far (nine turnovers forced, +5 TO margin) probably has a little to do with that. If there's a worry spot, it's of the matter of this good fortune continuing. Really they didn't have any business beating Indiana, but they were handed five turnovers by the Hoosiers, and hey, what were they supposed to do, say "no thanks"?

But obviously they can't go into every week expecting all of those breaks to go in their favor. Jim Grobe's voodoo magic ain't walkin' into that locker room, son! (Plus, how can a mythical concept walk, it doesn't have legs.)

This is not to say that doom lies ahead. Wake's defense will look worse statistically a month from now, but it should remain a solid unit through ACC play as long as that defensive line keeps up the good work.