Spread: Wake Forest -6.5 (O/U 65)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, ACC Network
Louisville’s offense got productive outings across the board, as Jawon Pass reached a season-high with 358 yards, and Trey Smith rushed for 98 yards and three touchdowns. Tutu Atwell (eight catches, 132 yards) and Jaylen Smith (eight catches, 107 yards) also had 100-yard games receiving.
But in the final game of the Matt Colburn v. Bobby Petrino saga, it would be the Demon Deacons — and moreso Colburn — that would get the last laugh. Colburn rushed for a career high 243 yards and three touchdowns, part of Wake Forest’s 368 on the ground and 591 overall, en route to a 56-35 win over the Cardinals.
Louisville leads the all-time series 4-2, but Wake Forest has won the last two games against the Cardinals.
Meet the 2019 Wake Forest Demon Deacons:
With many teams in the ACC Atlantic Division either rebuilding or seeing their stock drop going into 2019, that left the door open for a team to potentially become second billing behind perennial national title contender Clemson.
It was Syracuse in the early going, but an absolutely brutal loss to Maryland unseated the Orange. Now it is Wake Forest, who is 5-0 and ranked as high as 17th in the Coaches Poll. With the fast-paced, explosive ‘Clawfense’ (a chosen portmanteau combining the last name of head coach Dave Clawson with the last syllable of offense), the Demon Deacons could be on the verge of a potentially historic season. There is a possibility that the team could go and win ten regular season games and potentially reach a New Year’s Six bowl, if they win every game they would be favored in (spoiler: that’s all of them except a road trip to Clemson in November).
Key Offensive Players: QB Jamie Newman, WR Sage Surratt, WR Scotty Washington
But how, exactly, did Wake Forest get in this position? Give most of the credit to a Wake Forest offense that is unbelievably tough to stop. The Demon Deacons are completing 70.5% of its passes and averaging 312.6 yards per game, the latter of which is 14th in FBS and second in the ACC behind Miami (FL).
Part of it is due to the emergence of quarterback Jamie Newman. Since taking over as the starter late last season, Newman is 8-1. At 6’4″ and 230 lbs., he’s a bigger quarterback than original starter Sam Hartman (6’1, 200 lbs), and his touch with the deep ball is impressive. In Wake Forest’s unorthodox running game, his size also gives him the ability to shrug off tackles and get decent gains. His emergence as the starter unlocks the full potential of the offense, especially since he can stretch the field with his arm very well.
Part of it is also due to the great receivers Wake Forest has on the outside. Clemson might have the best receivers in the conference, but a strong argument could be made that Wake Forest is right behind them. Both Sage Surratt and Scotty Washington average over 15 yards per catch, and are tied for the conference lead with six touchdowns. They also account for half of the team’s catches and 63% of Wake Forest’s receiving yards (34/515 for Surratt, 27/470 for Washington). They’re both excellent at jump balls and beating defenders deep, which is a great trait for their quarterback who can throw deep passes very well.
If Surratt can continue his trajectory in 2019, he could position himself as a potential sleeper in the 2020 draft, with room to be a very early selection in 2021. He’s got great size at 6’3″ and 220 pounds, and he’ll use all of it when he can. Surratt, much like former standout Greg Dortch, can make plays at any level of the field with his impressive catch radius and leaping ability. His stellar athleticism shouldn’t be a surprise, given his brother is a former quarterback at UNC turned linebacker.
Washington has been a key contributor for the Deacons since his redshirt freshman season in 2016. He was always a solid receiver, but tended to get overlooked due to how much of a freak Dortch was alongside him. Even with the emergence of Surratt, Washington has found room to have just as important of a role for the offense. He is an even bigger target at 6’5″ and 225 pounds, and has gone off before against Louisville in 2017 (six catches for 133 yards).
Key Defensive Players: DL Boogie Basham, LB Justin Strnad
The Clawfense is the bread and butter of Wake Forest’s identity since their head coach took over in 2014, but the team has had some solid playmakers on defense with Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates III among them.
This year, Wake Forest’s defense hinges on stars in their front seven like Carlos “Boogie” Basham and linebacker Justin Strnad. Basham leads Wake Forest with 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss, and can wreak havoc in the backfield for many defenses. His matchup with Louisville’s Mekhi Becton will be a fun one to watch, as Louisville looks to continue their stellar effort with running the ball. He was hands down the most impressive player on Wake Forest’s defense when they played North Carolina in a non-conference game last month. Wake Forest’s defensive line was able to win the line of scrimmage for most of the game and kept the Tar Heels out of the end zone until the fourth quarter, and they’ll lean on them some more against Louisville.
Justin Strnad is an all-around playmaker for the defense, leading the team with 53 tackles to go with 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and an interception. Wake Forest has been average in most departments (62nd in rushing defense, 87th in passing defense), but given the prolific nature of their offense, they’ve done just enough to stay undefeated thus far with Strnad and Basham leading the team.
One More Important Thing to Know:
Assuming that Wake Forest defeats Louisville on Saturday, the Demon Deacons would be in position for a truly historic season. If chalk held and they won four more games, it would be their second ten win season in the history of the program. The only other time Wake Forest reached double digit wins? 2006, when Louisville played in the Orange Bowl against the Demon Deacons.
Can Louisville’s secondary matchup against Wake Forest’s receivers?
The first storyline is one that will likely decide the game. Louisville has had a lot of issues in pass coverage in recent games against Florida State and Boston College, and that’s not a good sign heading into a matchup with the most prolific passing attack in the ACC. They’ve also had issues, in particular, with deep passes dating back to the Western Kentucky game where guys just get wide open downfield.
I know a lot of fans are extremely concerned about covering the middle of the field, and in particular the tight end position after seeing WKU and Boston College reel off long touchdown passes. If Surratt or Washington inexplicably can’t have a good game, it’s not far off to suggest Wake Forest’s Jack Freudenthal can have one. Freudenthal is fourth on the team with 11 catches for 113 yards, but did have a 28-yard touchdown catch in last year’s game against Louisville.
Louisville’s cornerbacks will at least have to challenge Surratt and Washington to make tough catches with tight man coverage. Giving those two a chance to get open and wreak havoc in intermediate opportunities could mean Wake Forest has a huge day against Louisville, much like Florida State and Boston College have the last two games.
Will Louisville’s defensive line disrupt the RPO?
Another reason why Wake Forest’s offense is tough to gameplan against is their unconventional run-pass option style. Unlike a usual RPO, Wake Forest will literally wait until the last possible moment to make a decision. The quarterback will carry the ball in super close proximity with the running back, with him making the decision to either hand it off or hit his receiver on a quick route.
This is all by design. Choosing to hand it off that late can break gap discipline down, opening running lanes much later than normal in an option play. It can also freeze defenders long enough to get receivers open, if Newman decides to throw it. It puts a lot of strain on defenders to make the right play, and with Wake Forest’s tempo being among the fastest in the country, it can be very frustrating to play against. Wake Forest has score 45+ points in the last two games against Louisville, mostly because the Cardinals have struggled against this unorthodox look.
But how can Louisville counter it? By winning the battle upfront and getting pressure from its defensive line and multiple blitz sets. That will be easier said than done, though. Wake Forest has allowed six sacks through five games this season, tied for 15th best in the FBS.
Can Louisville’s offensive line continue to set the tone?
Louisville’s offensive line is coming off another zero sack day, and the benefits of that were on full display against Boston College. The quarterbacks had plenty of time to throw into wide open lanes, and Louisville also had great blocking when they needed to run the ball.
Once again, Louisville’s offensive line may need to be the difference maker for the Cardinals to keep up with Wake Forest’s offense. The matchup everyone will want to see is probably Mekhi Becton v. Boogie Basham, but TJ McCoy and Tyler Haycraft also need to have a solid game.
One stat to keep in mind: in Wake Forest’s two closest games to date (Utah State and Boston College), they had one combined sack. If Louisville protects the quarterback and provides time, that could give them opportunities to hit some passes downfield and keep up in a potential shootout.