Roy Martin: Keys to Clemson vs. Wake Forest


by - Correspondent -
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This is not the same Wake Forest team most fans are used to seeing.


Once considered the worst program in the conference and a homecoming opponent less feared than Duke, the Demon Deacons have turned things around since the arrival of Jim Grobe. They may not be contenders for the ACC crown just yet, but they are a formidable foe that is capable of beating nearly everyone on their schedule.


Many fans point to the lines set by odd makers and bemoan just how far Clemson has fallen since the late ‘80s. Clemson can no longer look at Wake as a tune-up game. If the Tigers give anything less than their best, Wake will gladly embarrass them.


Although Clemson is not the proud program it once was, too many fans seemingly overlook the about-face Wake Forest has managed the last couple of years. The Demon Deacons finished with a 7-6 record in 2002 that included a victory over Purdue and a 38-17 thrashing of Oregon in the Seattle Bowl.

That followed a 2001 season in which they finished with a 6-5 record. With a 4-4 record and 4 games remaining, they now have a shot to put together three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in 50 years.

The closeness of this match-up has just as much to do with Wake improving as it does with Clemson falling. Clemson is the not only team in the league that Wake has plagued recently. They have played well over the course of the last two seasons and continue to fight this year.

They turned the ball over on downs inside the Purdue 20 with a minute left in the game as they lost 16-10. Against Virginia, they allowed a 53-yard field goal with less than two minutes to play to tie the game. They mounted a rally of their own to regain the lead, but threw an interception with 35 seconds left that gave the ball back to the Cavaliers. Virginia then ran two quick plays that set up the game winning field goal with 10 seconds left.

A couple of lucky breaks and Wake Forest is just a few plays away from being a 6-2 football team with a national ranking. Sure, that may sound like a statement Lou Holtz would make as he twists and turns things in an attempt to talk up a lesser opponent. After all, he would have you to believe Vanderbilt is on the verge of becoming the next Oklahoma or Miami.

However, that was not the purpose of the comment. Instead, it was effort to show you just how far they have come. Just think about it for a minute.

A few years ago, they were again a few lucky breaks from having three or four wins. Now they are at the point where they are a few lucky breaks from being nationally ranked.

OFFENSE

Statistically, Clemson is coming off its best game of the season. The Tigers moved the ball fairly well as their average scoring drive was 76 yards. The problem was they had to settle for field goals on three of those scoring drives. Twenty-nine points is not enough for a team with over 500 yards of offense.


On paper, Wake Forest looks to be about as bad as North Carolina. They are giving up 437 yards of offense per game. Their pass defense is ranked 114th in the country as it yields 295 yards per game.

Wake runs a very unique 3-3-5 defense. The three linebackers are normally stacked directly behind their defensive lineman and have gap responsibilities. The 5 defensive backs are made up of 2 corners and 3 safeties. The strong safety and bandit (3rd safety) are a mix between a linebacker and strong safety. They will generally line up close to linebacker depth and just outside of the offensive formation. In some instances, it will look like a 3-5 front with a 3-deep secondary.

The purpose of this defense is to provide and 8-man front against the run and an 8-man coverage unit against the pass. As unconventional as it sounds, they do a good job of running it and finding a way to be successful. It is a “bend but do not break” style of defense that relies on preventing the big play.

They do not mind giving up yards. That is evidenced by the fact that they have been out gained by every opponent this season. Teams such as N.C. State have put up huge offensive numbers without putting very many points on the board. Their focus is on playing fundamentally sound football and forcing their opponents to make costly mistakes.

For instance, they have forced 20 turnovers through 8 games. Of the 211 points they have scored as a team, 27% have come as a direct result of those turnovers. Likewise, only 12% of their opponents’ points have come as a direct result of Wake’s turnovers.

Their secondary is the strongest unit on the defense. Cornerback Eric King is an All-ACC performer with 28 career starts. He already has 13 passes broken up (PBUs) this season. Free safety Quintin Williams has started 36 straight games and 38 during his career. He is their defensive leader.

The remaining three defensive backs all have a lot of experience: McGruder (20), Braxton (19), and Bracy (27). Clemson does have somewhat of a physical advantage, as the two corners, King and McGruder, are only 5’9”.

The Wake linebackers are physical and experienced. Kellen Brantley and Brad White have 32 and 21 starts, respectively. The third member, Dion Williams, is in his first year as a starter but he is a 5th-year senior. White has a motor than never stops and all of them are very solid tacklers. They may be the most underrated group of linebackers in the conference.

Their three down linemen are very inexperienced and undersized. Cori Stukes (NT) and Jyles Tucker (RE) are only 250 lbs. Jerome Nichols (LE) is the biggest of the bunch at 6’2”, 275 lbs. Goryal Scales and John Finklea are starters that provide size and experience but they remain doubtful for the game because of injuries.

Wake will keep the Tigers guessing all day with a variety of different looks. There will be times when they drop nine and rush two. Despite only having eight sacks on the season, there will also be times where they walk two of the safeties up and blitz as many as six or seven guys.

There is nothing flashy about the type of game plan it takes to beat this defense. The Tigers must effectively play a game of pitch-and-catch. And since Wake seems to be worried about the big play capability of the Tiger offense, one would think they may be playing back a little and the opportunity to run the ball will open up.


If they hold true to form, the Deacs will give up plenty of yards. What Clemson has to do is hold onto the ball. More than in any game they have played or will play this season, turnovers will crush their chances of winning.

DEFENSE


The Wake Forest offense shares many of the same principles as the wishbone. Because the wishbone is, for the most part, an option-oriented offense, many just assume Wake is an option team. That is the biggest misconception about Demon Deacon football.

Wake uses a lot of the misdirection typically associated with a wishbone offense. In many ways their offensive philosophy is similar to Clemson’s. They like to spread the field and create a lot of one-on-one match-ups. Whether they are in a stacked-I with two wide receivers or a one-back shotgun formation, they want to find mismatches.

They run the ball very effectively by using many different formations and motions. The orbit motion is one of their favorites. This involves having a wide receiver or slot back coming in motion, then rounding it off into the backfield on the snap of the ball. This enables him to receive a handoff for a reverse, serve as the pitch man on an option play, or come out of the backfield on something such as a wheel route on play action passes. Oddly enough, he may be most effective serving as a decoy.


The reason this type of motion works so well is it opens up so many possibilities. This forces the linebackers and safeties to hold for a step or so longer as they make their reads. That extra step allows offensive linemen to work to the second level on running plays and take out the linebackers. It also allows the wide receivers and running backs to gain an extra advantage against the defensive backs and linebackers on passing plays.


It is nothing more than a wild goose chase. The advantage the offense has is that they know where the goose is going.

Redshirt-sophomore Cory Randolph is the quarterback that directs this offense. He is an exceptional athlete that has made good decisions for most of the season.

The man that has stepped up in recent weeks to lead the offense is Chris Barclay. The starting tailback is the guy that will get a large portion of the carries on Saturday. He is not a very big guy, but does have a hard running style. He has the explosiveness to get outside and tenacity to run between the tackles.

When they pass the ball, Jason Anderson and Willie Idlette the receivers they hope to find. Anderson is their big play guy that is averaging over 17 yards per catch. He has caught four of their five touchdown passes.

Idlette is a 2nd-year freshman that has shown big play potential. They use him in a variety of ways. He has 28 rushes on the season and at least 2 in every game. He and Anderson are very good blocking wide receivers.

Both offensive tackles are experienced seniors. Left tackle Tyson Clabo is a post-season award candidate and the anchor of the line. Center Blake Lingruen is in his second year as a starter. Both guards are first year starters.

As a unit, the offensive line is a solid group that is very fundamentally sound. They have only given up 10 sacks on the season with 5 of those coming last week against Florida State. They have been called dirty in the past because they do a lot of cut blocking. For the most part, what they do is as legal. Many just find it hard to deal with because they are not used to it.

The focus of this offense is to run the ball. They will run nearly every play as long as they are having success. Against games they easily won against Duke and N.C. State, they threw the ball 4 and 10 times. The attempted 28, 30, and 31 passes in 3 of their 4 losses. How often they pass the ball depends on how successful their running game is.

Against Florida State, they put up more rushing yards (230) and more total offense (326) than any of the Seminoles’ previous opponents. In 27 trips to the Red Zone, they have scored 23 times. They only average 327 yards of total offense per game, but they find a way to make it count.

If Clemson is going to stop the Deacons, they must find a way to improve last week’s tackling woes. The North Carolina rushing game will be nothing compared to what Wake does if Clemson does not tackle well.

It goes without saying when playing an offense such as Wake’s that all 11 defenders must play fundamental football. As mentioned earlier, Wake looks to create mismatches. It takes just one defensive player making a mistake to create such an advantage. To make matters worse for the defense, Wake rarely turns the ball over. They are 1st in the ACC and 9th in the nation with a +1.13 turnover margin.

If Clemson can stop the ground game and force Wake to pass, the Tigers definitely increase their chances of winning.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Wake’s punter, Ryan Plackemeier, is 1st in the ACC and 4th nationally with a 46.6-yard average. He has had 8 punts of 55 yards or more. Against Florida State last week, he punted 10 times for a 48.3-yard average. He is a player that can change the field position battle in a single play.

Clemson’s punting game is the exact opposite. Cole Chason is struggling and has yet to show any improvement from the beginning of the season. That is one of the reasons Clemson has gone to such an unconventional punting formation. It allows the coverage team to get down field much quicker in hopes of improving the net punting average.


Clemson still leads the nations in kickoff returns with a 30.4-yard average. That unit will face a tough task this week as Wake only gives up an average of 19.5 yards on returns.


Aaron Hunt struggled as he began the season but has come on as of late. His three field goals last week were all very big. He nailed a very important shot just before the half that allowed the Tigers to regain the lead on the way to the locker room.

Meanwhile, Wake has let Matt Wisnosky takeover the kicking duties after beginning the season as the starter. He was the starter last year. Plackemeier filled in admirably during the previous seven games and now has Wake in an enviable position of having two place kickers.

SUMMARY


Wake Forest is a team that plays mistake-free football while hoping to force their opponents into committing a number of miscues. They rarely turn the ball over and they are the least penalized team in the league at 40 yards per game.

Their offense is difficult because of the mismatches created by all of the misdirection. They have a “run first” mentality that allows them to control the clock. They effectively mix in a play action passing game that can result in big plays. Their goal is to wear down and frustrate the defense, and win the game in the 4th quarter.

Their defense is very unusual but effective. They have given up a ton of yards all year long while managing to keep their opponents out of the end zone. Again, they look to play mistake free football while they wait on their opponents to commit turnovers. The teams that have been most successful against them have managed to hold onto the football and work the clock.


This is another big game for the Tigers because they have a chance to make a push for a top three ACC finish. A win this week and they are nearly assured of a 5-3 conference record. That means a top finish and a decent bowl game. It also gives the team two consecutive wins against solid team and a lot of confidence heading into the Florida State game.

The Tigers managed to steal one from the Demon Deacons last year by beating them at their own game. The Tigers forced five turnovers while committing one. This year they should play a better all around game but will still struggle against a feisty bunch from Winston-Salem. One or two plays will be the difference in the game.

The Tigers win a nail biter 34-30.

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