Following one of the wildest weekends in college football I can remember in quite sometime, Clemson is back in pole position, and in control of their own destiny on their way to the postseason. Now, with the ACC Atlantic title locked up and a path to the CFP cleared, the 3rd-ranked Tigers simply need to take care of business in the last few weeks of their season.
But that’s easier said than done, because the tests that await Clemson in these final games are all formidable opponents, beginning with an experienced, explosive, aggressive team looking to spoil the party in Death Valley this weekend...
(3)Clemson vs. Wake Forest
Saturday, November 16 | 3:30PM EST
ESPN Spread: Clemson -34.5
ABOUT THE WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
- 7-2 (3-2 in the ACC), 48th in the SP+
- Another solid season in the rebuild led by coach Dave Clawson, but a loss to Virginia Tech a week ago stung their chances at making this a marquee match-up
- Offense is an explosive, pass-heavy system led by QB Jamie Newman, one of the country’s best all-around playmakers
- Defense is aggressive, but tends to get burned by big plays
Dave Clawson doesn’t get enough credit for the work he’s done at Wake Forest. Prior to his arrival, the Demon Deacons hadn’t won seven or more games since 2008 - and while, as a program, they always seemed to hang around a little bit when conference play came around, finishing below .500 in five straight years signaled the need for a change. That change has already borne fruit, as after two straight 3-9 seasons to start, Clawson went 22-17 from 2016-2018 (including three straight bowl victories). And with a 7-1 start going into Blacksburg last week, you got the feeling that Clawson’s team was on the road to something special in 2019.
In fact, a week ago, this game was more than just an above-average test in the ACC - it was a game that had divisional title implications on the line. With some of the conference’s best skill players, a defense with a propensity for mayhem, and a Clemson team that’s yet to truly be tested in 2019… an 8-1 Wake Forest team would have presented the Tigers with a top 25 match-up for the ACC Atlantic, no doubt the conference’s biggest game of the season.
But, alas, the Demon Deacons fell to the Hokies in Blacksburg, giving Clemson the Atlantic crown a week early, and lowering the stakes of the Tigers’ final conference game just a hair.
That doesn’t mean, however, that this game won’t be an exciting test for Clemson - far from it, in fact. At 7-2, Wake Forest is a dynamic, aggressive team with plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball - and even without the divisional title to play for… a shocking victory over Clemson would be the kind of win that could keep the rebuild climbing for Clawson and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Let’s see how they’ll try to get it done…
Jamie Newman. That’s the name you’ll need to know.
There was some question coming into this season as to whether it would be Newman or sophomore Sam Hartman getting the majority of snaps this season. But that debate is long since over, as Newman has emerged as not just the heart and soul of this Demon Deacons offense, but as one of the ACC’s best playmakers. Period.
Newman has thrown for an ACC-leading 287.1 yards per game, has recorded 22 touchdowns (to just seven interceptions), and his 153.74 QB rating is third in the conference thus far. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also added 301 yards and five touchdowns on the ground - ranking him 9th nationally when it comes to total offense per game. And while the loss of leading receiver Sage Surratt will no doubt hurt (Surratt was leading the conference in receiving yards per game before a season-ending injury last week against Virginia Tech), there are plenty of other weapons in the passing attack, including Kendall Hinton, who has 51 receptions for 659 yards, and senior TE Jake Freudenthal.
All of this has given Wake Forest the 11th ranked passing offense in the country - and while the running game is not nearly as proficient, they've still been effective enough when called upon.
Along with Newman, RB Cade Carney has been a solid option to keep defenses honest on the ground, though the Demon Deacons as a team rank just 51st in yards per game and 87th in yards per carry. The offensive line isn’t helping matters, as they rank 122nd in opportunity rate and a ho-hum 56th in stuff rate allowed.
Needless to say, however, I’m guessing we see them lean on the passing game tomorrow.
Wake Forest’s defense is all about unleashing havoc on their opponents, as at +7 they’re tied for 13th in the country when it comes to turnover margin, and are creating either fumbles or interceptions on 15.1% of their defensive possessions (18th).
DL Carlos Basham Jr. leads the way for the Demon Deacons with 13 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks on the year - while the fantastic linebacker trio of JaCorey Johns, Justin Strnad, and Ryan Smenda Jr. have combined for 17 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks on the year.
In the secondary, meanwhile, DB Amari Henderson has recorded four interceptions and nine passes defended already this year, and, on the whole, the Demon Deacons secondary 33rd in interceptions on the year, and 32nd in passes defended.
Still, as with any aggressive defense like Wake Forest’s, with too much risk comes the potential to get burned.
They rank 109th in explosive drive rate (drives that average at least 10 yards per play), which has prevented them from getting too many effective stops as a unit. They rank 88th in broken drive rate (drives that end in zero of negative yards for the offense), and 76th in total yards allowed per game (72nd rushing, 90th passing).
They got absolutely lit up by a Virginia Tech offense that had been teetering for much of the year, and so they’ll really need to button things up this weekend in their trip to Death Valley.
Key for Clemson
Get pressure, and don’t let Newman out of the tackle box
While Wake Forest’s offensive line hasn’t been particularly effective in establishing the run, they have been absolutely fantastic at protecting Newman in the pocket. They’re currently 10th in sack rate allowed so far this season, and is 1st when it comes to sack rate allowed in long yardage situations.
But, crucially, Wake Forest hasn’t seen anything like what Clemson will be throwing at them. The Tigers are 3rd in sack rate, 7th in broken drive rate, and 7th in turnover rate - and with 84 tackles for a loss this season, you can bet they’ll be looking for more tomorrow.
That pressure should take the heat off of Clemson’s secondary as they look to keep pace with a very talented receiving core, but equally important to getting pressure on Newman will be making sure to contain him so he’s not able to pick up easy yards on the ground.
If Clemson is able to disrupt the Demon Deacons’ timing in the passing game, it will be hard for them to keep up with a Clemson offense that’s absolutely firing on all cylinders right now.
What Will Happen
I actually think this one will stay close for a little while. It has, admittedly, been a minute since Clemson’s defense was challenged by viable playmakers who will be able to stay with them, and Jamie Newman is, potentially, a future NFL QB who will come in ready to make his mark on the game.
I see this game as a high scoring affair in the first half, with the team’s breaking at halftime with a combined score around 40-45 points. But in the second half, I think Clemson’s defense will tighten up and make the necessary adjustments, while the Tigers’ offense continues to rack up points en route to a game that will feel much closer that the final score indicates.
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