Game Week: Wake Forest

When Navy and Wake Forest square off on Saturday afternoon, it will be a clash of the unlikeliest of titans.

OK, so maybe “titans” is a stretch. But it will be a matchup of two 4-2 teams that are enjoying the kind of success that most people once thought was impossible at either school.

Navy fans are familiar with the challenges that our coaches have to overcome in order to produce a winner. Unfortunately, we are also familiar with season after season of not being able to do so. In many ways, Wake Forest fans can say the same thing. While they aren’t a military school that has to sell a recruit on plebe summer, a 5-year military commitment, and height and weight restrictions, Wake Forest is a small school that plays in a conference where its academic standards put it at a competitive disadvantage. In the 20 years before Jim Grobe was hired, Wake Forest had only 5 winning seasons, and only two of those ended in a trip to a bowl game. Their last conference championship had come in 1970, and even that team didn’t get a bowl invitation, finishing only 6-5.

In 2001, Wake Forest plucked Jim Grobe away from the University of Ohio. Grobe immediately led the Demon Deacons to two straight winning seasons, including a dominating  victory over Oregon in the 2002 Seattle Bowl. Then, after a few disappointing years, the impossible dream happened: Wake Forest won the ACC.

It isn’t hyperbole to call it a miracle. Stories like the 2006 Wake Forest football team just don’t happen. Schools that actually make their players go to class aren’t supposed to blow out Florida State on the way to an Orange Bowl berth. Teams that lose as many key offensive players to injury as they did aren’t supposed to win 11 games. But they did. And now, the 2007 Wake Forest team is out to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke. If you watched their game against Florida State last week, you’d know that they definitely weren’t. The Deacs lost their first two games of the year to Boston College and Nebraska, but have since won four straight. Offense has been a bit of a struggle for them, but they’ve been bolstered by an excellent defense. During their 4-game winning streak, Wake’s defense has surrendered a scant 322 yards per game and forced 10 turnovers.

RobinsonNavy’s worst offensive performance this year came against Rutgers. Rutgers wasn’t the biggest defense in the world, but they had tremendous speed. The Scarlet Knights were able to use that speed to not only stretch out option plays to the sideline, but to shoot gaps and penetrate into the backfield. Rutgers’ speed and athleticism were also factors in Kaipo’s three interceptions, as Rutgers made plays in coverage and applied pressure in the pocket. The Wake Forest defense has all the same speed as Rutgers, and is even a bit bigger with players like the 6-2, 326 lb. Boo Robinson at defensive tackle. The play of Robinson and the rest of the defensive line has freed up linebackers Aaron Curry and Stanley Arnoux to combine for 69 tackles, including 9 for a loss.

Both of Wake’s safeties are excellent in run support. Free safety Chip Vaughn leads the team in tackles. It’s usually bad news when a safety is your team’s leading tackler because that means that your defense is consistently having to make tackles 5-10 yards upfield. That isn’t the case with Wake Forest. The Deacs play a very aggressive defense and don’t hesitate to let their safeties hover around the line of scrimmage. They can do this because they boast a pair of excellent cornerbacks in Brandon Ghee and Alphonso Smith. Smith has 4 interceptions and leads the team with 7 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. The confidence that the Wake staff has in these corners allows them to sell out against the run. Last week, Florida State essentially gave up trying to run the ball against them; the Seminoles were held to only 47 yards on 24 attempts. Florida State. This defense is good.

Against Navy, Wake’s safeties are most likely going to play as aggressively as they have all year. This can work to Navy’s advantage in the play-action passing game. But the more they pass, the more the Mids will have to deal with defensive end Jeremy Thompson. As fast as he is big (6-5, 264), Thompson already has 6 sacks on the year. The combination of aggressive run support, excellent cornerbacks, and QB pressure has allowed Wake Forest to force 18 turnovers, good for 11th in the country.

That’s a concern. The difference between Navy’s 1-2 start and their current 3-game winning streak has been turnovers. Navy had 7 turnovers in its first three games, but only 1 since then. Because Navy’s opponents have scored on what seems like every posession, the turnovers put the offense off the pace. And a quick look at the Wake Forest offense reveals that their Navy counterparts are going to be pressured to score a lot of points yet again.

Paul Johnson described the Deacs’ offense as “Air Force at warp speed.” Considering that Wake Forest is far more athletic than the Air Force offense that rolled up 470 yards against Navy, that’s a scary thought.  Like Air Force, Wake Forest makes extensive use of misdirection and play action. Wide receiver Kenny Moore leads the team with 886 all-purpose yards. Pressed into service as a running back last year due to injuries, Moore is still used extensively in the running game much in the same way that Air Force uses Chad Hall. One of the running backs whose injury forced Moore to change positions last year is Micah Andrews, who returns this year after an ACL tear. Andrews shares the backfield with the lightning-fast freshman, Josh Adams. Adams was the star of the Florida State game, rushing for 140 yards including an 83-yard burst up the sideline for a touchdown. If Navy tackles as poorly as they did against Pittsburgh, Adams will make them pay. Ketric Buffin picked a bad week to get hurt.

Moore is Wake Forest’s leading receiver, followed by tight end John Tereshinski. Wake Forest rotates Tereshinski and Zac Selmon at the TE position, with Selmon being the better blocker. Tereshinski has excellent hands and good speed for a TE, and has 19 catches so far this year. With the soft zone coverage that Navy uses on defense, Tereshinski will have plenty of chances to make plays underneath. That is, if Riley Skinner can get him the ball.

Skinner is a bit of an enigma this year. He’s completed 70% of his passes, but has also thrown 9 interceptions in 4 games (Skinner separated his shoulder against Boston College and sat out two games). The Wake offense as a whole is 98th in the country in turnovers with 17. Of course, playing aggressive defenses like Florida State, Maryland, and Boston College doesn’t help. Does Wake make mistakes on their own, or have they been pressured into them? Navy’s chances might depend on the answer.

Wake Forest’s speed on defense makes it important for Navy to establish the fullback this week. If linebackers respect the fullback dive, they will be slower to react to plays moving outside. The last time Navy and Wake Forest played, that’s exactly what the Mids were able to do. Mike Brimage ran for 171 yards and a touchdown back in 2002 against a bowl-bound Demon Deacon team. Conventional wisdom states that Jim Grobe’s familiarity with option offenses should give him a leg up on defending Navy, but that wasn’t the case back then as Navy ran for 317 yards. Navy had a 27-23 lead going into Wake’s final drive but couldn’t hold on as Fabian Davis put the Deacs on top with 53 seconds left in the game. Wake won that day, but Navy’s offensive performance served as a springboard into their game two weeks later against Army.

This a much better Wake Forest team than the one Navy lined up against in 2002. Then again, Navy is better too, at least offensively. Better, but good enough? We’ll find out.

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