Everything You Need To Know: Louisville vs. Wake Forest

Kickoff: Noon ET, ACC Network

Spread: Louisville -1.5, O/U 63.5 (Bovada)

Last Time:

The last meeting between Louisville and Wake Forest was an instant classic, one of the most explosive games in program history. Both teams combined for 1,188 yards and 121 points, with Louisville seeing a sterling effort from freshman quarterback Evan Conley off the bench. Conley completed 12-of-18 passes for 196 yards with three total touchdowns, including a 41-yard rushing touchdown on an option keeper on fourth-and-one late, to give the Cardinals a 62-59 win over 19th ranked Wake Forest.

Louisville leads the all-time series 5-2, but has lost two of the last three to the Demon Deacons.

Meet the 2020 Wake Forest Demon Deacons

There are currently five head coaches in the ACC that have been with their current school since Louisville joined the conference in 2014. One of them is Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, who enters his seventh season with the Demon Deacons.

After back-to-back 3-9 seasons to start his tenure, Clawson has built Wake Forest into a solid mid-tier program in the ACC. The Deacons have had four straight winning seasons, and could be five with a win over Louisville on Saturday.

Wake Forest enters the game 4-3, having won four of their last five contests. The Demon Deacons have not played a game since November 14th due to the coronavirus.

Offensive Players to Know: WR Jaquarii Roberson, QB Sam Hartman, RB Christian Beal-Smith

Whereas Louisville’s season is defined by giving up the ball a ridiculous amount, Wake Forest’s is defined by giving up the ball almost never. The Demon Deacons offense has had one turnover all season (a fumble in the second game of the season against North Carolina State). They have been incredibly efficient and have not beaten themselves like the Cardinals have done most of the season.

Their efficiency has been a fantastic thing for this team, given that they had to replace a ton of star power in the offseason. Star wide receiver Sage Surratt opted out of the 2020 season back in August to prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft, meaning the Deacons had to replace him and two senior receivers (Kendall Hinton and Scotty Washington). Jaquarii Roberson has stepped up and become the big play receiver that Wake Forest needs in their offense (I’m sorry, ‘Clawfense’). He leads the team in virtually every receiving category (45 rec, 657 yards, four TDs) and really excels on slants with solid hands.

Wake Forest also had to replace quarterback Jamie Newman, but thankfully they had a guy that could step in right away with Sam Hartman. Like Newman, Hartman has the ability to hit some decent throws deep, which Louisville hasn’t had to deal with a ton this season. He also has experience with Clawson’s unconventional option play. They tend to ride the mesh point as long as possible until a window opens up, whether that’s a defender blowing his gap or the coverage sagging off and allowing underneath routes (especially the slant) to get open. They also have guys like Donavon Greene who average 20 yards per reception, so they can take the top off of defenses if their RPO is working.

Running back duties were split between Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker this season, but the latter chose to opt out this week and that leaves Wake Forest without a guy that scored 13 rushing touchdowns in 2020. Beal-Smith is a guy that fits their system very well. He doesn’t have a lot of ball security issues that could come with an unorthodox RPO style, and he has the ability to break some big runs outside. I do wonder if Walker’s absence, though, will lead to a bigger workload for Beal-Smith. Clawson has always split the load almost evenly between his top 2-3 running backs every season (think back to Cade Carney / Matt Colburn during the Lamar Jackson era, for example). If Beal-Smith doesn’t get 20+ carries on Saturday, expect Justice Ellison (15 car., 44 yards, TD) to have a huge role as the spell back.

Defensive Players to Know: DL Carlos Basham, DB Ja’Sir Taylor, DB Nick Andersen

The Wake Forest defense hasn’t been great this year, but they do have star power. The Deacons allow 457 yards per game (including 113th in the FBS with 275 passing yards allowed per game), but they thrive off turnovers. Wake Forest is tied for ninth in the FBS with 12 interceptions in seven games played, which isn’t a good sign for a Louisville that has seen Malik Cunningham struggle with turnovers

Defensive linemen Carlos ‘Boogie’ Basham is the star of the team, and a likely first round pick in the NFL Draft this upcoming spring. He has the size to play defensive end in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, which tends to be rare in the pros. He’s also got a good variety of moves that allow him to be a menace as a pass rusher or run stopper. Basham currently leads the team in sacks (five) and is second on the team in tackles for loss (5.5), so he absolutely has to be one to watch on Saturday.

The secondary is very good at creating turnovers, but they have been gashed in their losses. They gave up 376 yards to Clemson in a season opening loss to the Tigers, and their last game at North Carolina saw the Deacons give up 550 yards through the air (most will also tell you that Trevor Lawrence and Sam Howell are the two best quarterbacks in the ACC, but I digress). Their third loss — against NC State in week two — had the Wolfpack rush for 270 yards against the Deacons. But, in their four wins, Wake Forest has had at least two interceptions in each of them.

If anyone in Wake’s secondary is going to create turnovers, I think Ja’Sir Taylor and Nick Andersen will be the likely candidates. Both are the only players on Wake’s roster with more than one interception, also among the team leaders in pass breakups. Andersen is a true freshman walk-on that has been a key contributor for the Deacons, and had a three interception game in their upset win over #19 Virginia Tech in October. Ja’Sir Taylor is a senior that has been solid in coverage all year.

Points of Interest:

  • How will both teams look at the start of the game?

Both teams come in with notable storylines. Wake Forest will be playing its first game in almost a month, but due to the constant changing of their schedule, it’s not like they’ve had to gameplan for Louisville the entire time. I don’t think Wake Forest would look sluggish after that long of a layoff, but rather, they should be playing with some invigoration from not having played in so long.

The Clawfense has been a mismatch for Louisville in recent years, as Wake Forest has scored 42, 56, and 59 points in their last three games against the Cardinals. If I’m Wake Forest, I try to continue what has worked against Louisville the last few years and most of this season; play with tempo, use the RPOs to confuse and exploit the defense, and sprinkle in some play action deep passing. They’ve also been remarkably efficient all year at turning the ball over, so if Louisville an

As for Louisville, this is their first game in two weeks, and the first since Scott Satterfield met with South Carolina about their job opening. It will be interesting to see if the team galvanizes around the coaching staff and plays with a renewed intensity.

Louisville needs to get off to a fast start and sustain drives against Wake Forest. Wake Forest has given up 37+ points in each of their three losses this season, and if the losses against Clemson and North Carolina are any indication, a good passing game can really hurt Wake Forest. The Deacons have also allowed 200+ rushing yards in three games this season, so the potential for a balanced approach is there.

  • Can Louisville’s pass rush be effective against WF?

For Louisville to win, their pass rush has to be disruptive against Wake Forest. Wake Forest is one of the worst teams in the FBS in terms of pass protection, allowing 3.6 sacks per game. That trends well for a Louisville front seven that made a huge difference in its wins against Western Kentucky, Florida State, and Syracuse this year.

Louisville’s front seven will also have to plug holes and contain Wake Forest’s running game. Wake Forest has had some of their best rushing totals in the last two years against the Cardinals, part of that because Louisville wasn’t great at containing the edge. If they can keep Wake Forest from bouncing outside runs and keeping drives going on the ground, that can go a long way towards stopping the play action pass over the top.

  • An early glimpse at the 2021 Louisville offense (maybe)

Tutu Atwell is also among the notable players out for Saturday’s game, as he decided to forego his final game of the season to prepare for the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft. Thus without Hawkins and now their leading receiver, you might see a preview of what Louisville’s offense will look like next season.

I think with the extra week off after Boston College, it will help guys get reps and get acclimated to the system ahead of next season (similar to how Adonis Boone started the Music City Bowl last year). Jalen Mitchell and Hassan Hall are going to lead the backfield in carries, but who steps up in Tutu Atwell’s absence?

Evidence from this season suggests that Braden Smith and Jordan Watkins will have an expanded role in Saturday’s game, and likely will be key contributors next season. Smith should be the leading candidate for the slot position, and he’s already had a ton of solid outings this season. I think Watkins has the ability to play inside or outside, but will play more inside since Louisville has more options available outside with Justin Marshall, and eventually Christian Fitzpatrick.

The one exception, though, is Dez Fitzpatrick, who plays his final home games after being one of the most productive receivers in school history. He had 125 yards and two touchdowns last year against Wake Forest, and I think he could relied upon heavily in what is ultimately his swan song with the program. I’d think at least that the crowd wants it badly for him, as he has been a fan favorite with the program since taking the field in 2017.

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