Everything You Need To Know: Louisville at Wake Forest

Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. ET, RSN

Spread: Wake Forest -7, O/U 62 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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In their final game of the 2020 season, Louisville got a 45-21 win over Wake Forest on Senior Day at Cardinal Stadium. Led by Jalen Mitchell’s 168 rushing yards, the Cardinals outgained the Demon Deacons in yards (453-351), forced two turnovers, and held Wake Forest to 17-of-41 passing.

Louisville leads the all-time series 6-2, and have won five of seven contests since joining the ACC in 2014.

2021 Wake Forest Demon Deacons at a Glance

After finishing 4-5 in 2020 (their first losing season under head coach Dave Clawson since 2015), Wake Forest wasted little time in rebounding for Clawson’s eighth season at the helm. The Demon Deacons are off to a 4-0 start, including their last two victories by 20+ points over Florida State and Virginia (the latter in Charlottesville). This is the fourth time since 2016 that Wake Forest has opened the season 4-0.

Wake Forest Offense Breakdown

If you’ve watched Wake Forest’s offense under Clawson, you know that the identity has been largely consistent. They’ll run up-tempo in spread, use their trademark unorthodox option, and take  chances downfield. Most importantly, Wake Forest typically doesn’t beat themselves by limiting turnovers. Quarterback Sam Hartman has thrown just one interception through four games this season, and Wake Forest enters this week with a +7 margin (tied for second in the FBS).

Even with Jamie Newman choosing to go to Georgia as a graduate transfer, Wake Forest was very fortunate to retain Hartman for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. He didn’t have the upside that Newman had at the time, but Hartman has improved his accuracy and decision making so far this season. Hartman is completing 66% of his passes and has a 9:1 TD-to-INT ratio, he’s showing some solid arm strength and accuracy on intermediate and deep throws.

Jaquarii Roberson was thought to be the top receiving target for Hartman after a stellar 2020 campaign (62 rec., 926 yards, eight TDs) that resulted in him attaining All-American status with Pro Football Focus, but A.T. Perry has emerged as a stud in the Wake Forest receiver corps. Perry currently leads the team in every major category, including 292 receiving yards and three TDs on 17.1 yards per catch.

The emergence of Perry adds more versatility to the Wake Forest passing game, and makes their signature RPO style harder to defend. Their RPO will have a “long-mesh” where the quarterback will wait until the very last second to either hand it off to Christian Beal-Smith, keep it, or hit a receiver on a quick route. It can freeze linebackers and make them have to commit to one aspect quickly, which if guessed incorrectly, can result in big plays for Wake Forest. Louisville was able to contain Wake Forest’s passing game last season with sticky coverage and solid pressure, but will they be able to do it again with more options at receiver?

Wake Forest also benefits from having Christian Beal-Smith in the backfield as well. Beal-Smith is a really talented back that can get tough yardage and get to the second level immediately. With Wake Forest’s delayed option that takes advantage of defenders losing their gap assignment, Beal-Smith could bounce runs off the weak side of Louisville’s defense if they don’t contain their lanes.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Christian Beal-Smith (276 rushing yards, four TDs); WR Jaquarii Roberson (245 receiving yards, two TDs); WR A.T. Perry (292 receiving yards, three TDs)

Wake Forest Defense Breakdown

Wake Forest had to replace longtime standout Boogie Basham on the defensive line, but the Deacons haven’t lost a step on defense either. Wake Forest is allowing 14 points per game and has held their last two opponents to under 100 yards rushing.

Part of the reason is that Wake Forest can make a ton of plays in the backfield. The Demon Deacons are tied for eighth in the FBS with 34 tackles for loss, averaging 8.5 per game. Luke Masterson moved over from safety to linebacker over his career and has been a breakout player for Wake Forest, he’ll fly everywhere and be involved in a lot of plays on Saturday. Masterson leads the team in tackles and TFLs, and he’s helped by a great defensive line that Wake Forest has.

Rondell Bothroyd is occupying the spot vacated by Basham, and he and Luiji Vilain have been a fantastic EDGE duo for Wake Forest. Bothroyd has 3.5 TFLs with two sacks so far, while Vilain also has 3.5 TFLs to go with a team-high three sacks. Wake Forest has a very deep line that is going to challenge Louisville’s offensive front in containing Cunningham and the zone running scheme.

The Wake Forest secondary has also played very good ball to start the season, and that’s no surprise to anyone that’s followed the Demon Deacons over the last five years. Wake Forest leads the ACC in turnovers forced (11), including six in their win against Florida State two weeks ago. They’ve also had a minimum +8 margin in four of their last five seasons, and currently sit at +7 with two-thirds of the season to go. Louisville has been far better year-to-year in taking care of the ball with just four turnovers on offense (+1 on the margin), but this will be a real test as far as their ability to avoid the turnover bug.

Caelen Carson has been outstanding in coverage so far, with two interceptions and six pass breakups in the first four games. Traveon Redd shares the INT lead with Carson with two picks of his own, while Ja’Sir Taylor has five career interceptions.

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Luke Masterson (27 tackles, 4.5 TFL); DL Rondell Bothroyd (two sacks, 3.5 TFL); CB Caelen Carson (two INTs, six PBUs, 12 tackles)

Keys to the Game

  • The focus will, once again, be on the Louisville offensive line

Louisville’s offensive line will need to avoid Wake Forest’s front seven from wreaking havoc in the backfield, as it has all season so far. Miles Fox had a monster game with four TFLs for Wake Forest last year, but Louisville was still able to control the game on the ground and rush for over 250 yards.

If the Louisville offensive line can win its matchups as it has the last two weeks, Louisville should be able to keep up with Wake Forest. Louisville’s running game has its work cut out for them against a Wake Forest group that has held FSU and Virginia to under 100 yards rushing the last two weeks.

But if Louisville is able to hold blocks, the quick passing game could be very effective against Wake Forest. Running misdirection and countering with RPO of their own could open up more opportunities for the Louisville offense to sustain drives and put points on the board.

  • Will Louisville’s corners match up against Perry and Roberson?

I’m of the belief that this could be a high scoring game, especially if both teams’ offenses perform like they have been to start the year. The winner of this game has scored 40+ points each time, and the combined total points in the last four outings have been 74, 91, 121, and 66 points. (Disclaimer: I don’t offer a whole lot of gambling takes, but the over/under at 62 is very generous. I’m just saying).

If Louisville wants to pull off another road victory in Winston-Salem, they’ll need another solid game from their cornerbacks. Wake Forest will likely get their chunk plays through the RPO and quick passing game, and the Florida State game showed that Louisville still has troubles trying to limit those plays from happening (especially with the increased tempo that FSU showed from the end of the first half onward). Louisville will need its corners to keep Perry and Roberson from stretching the field and getting big yardage (or getting points off a deep pass), but more importantly, forcing turnovers would help. It played a huge factor in their 2019 win, where Louisville forced three turnovers and beat a ranked Wake Forest team.

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