Game Preview: Virginia Tech Faces High-Powered Wake Forest Offense

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Virginia Tech thumped Wake Forest 36-17 last year, but this year’s game should be tougher. (Ivan Morozov)

No. 19 Virginia Tech at Wake Forest

Virginia Tech will look to make it four wins in their first five games when they hit the road to take on Wake Forest in Winston-Salem this weekend.  The Demon Deacons enter the game with a 2-2 record, and they’ve won two contests in a row after dropping their first two.

Wake lost to Clemson 37-13 in their season opener, and then dropped a close one 45-42 to NC State.  Then they hammered a Campbell team that is 0-4 on the season by a score of 66-14.  After a bye week, they trounced the Virginia Cavaliers 40-23 last week.

Wake Forest has qualified for four consecutive bowl games under head coach Dave Clawson, winning three of them.  Clawson lost quarterback Jamie Newman to transfer in the offseason (he went to Georgia, then opted out), and wide receiver Sage Surratt opted out before the season began.  Nevertheless, the Deacs are still putting up points against everybody not named Clemson, and their offense will certainly be a challenge for the Hokies come Saturday.

(Note: Wake Forest doesn’t release a depth chart, at least not one that I could find, so this preview is going to have more advanced stats and maybe fewer names than usual.)

Jamie Newman is gone, but if anything, Wake Forest is more potent on offense in 2020. (Ivan Morozov)

The Balanced Wake Forest Offense

Virginia Tech’s last two opponents have been polar opposites in terms of balance.  UNC can run and pass equally well, while the Boston College running game has been anemic during the course of the season.  Unfortunately for the Virginia Tech defense, the Wake Forest offense is much more like UNC than they are like Boston College.

The stats are somewhat skewed because Wake beat a very bad FCS team in Campbell, but it could also be skewed a bit in the other direction because they opened with Clemson. Here is how they rank in the ACC in all of the Pro Football Focus offensive categories…

Overall: No. 2 (behind only VT)
Passing: No. 2 (behind only Clemson)
Pass Blocking: No. 8
Receiving: No. 1
Running: No. 4
Run Blocking: No. 7

The Deacs have a good quarterback, a pair of good running backs, and a solid group of wide receivers.  They also have a head coach in Dave Clawson who knows what he’s doing offensively.  Their blocking has been mediocre so far, but everything else has been so good that they’ve still been able to put up nice numbers.

Sam Hartman (6-1, 215, r-So.) started for Wake two years ago as a true freshman before backing up Jamie Newman last season.  He threw for 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2018, and he appears to have made plenty of progress since then.  Here are his numbers for the season…

Passing: 62-of-100 (62%) for 893 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs
Rushing: 24 carries, -45 yards, -1.9 ypc

He’s not much of a threat running the football obviously, but he is very effective through the air.  He is the ACC’s third-best quarterback so far this season per PFF, and he’s got some interesting advanced metrics.

Big-time Throw Rate: 13%, No. 1 in the ACC

Average depth of target: 13.1 yards, highest in the ACC

28% of his attempts have been 20+ yards downfield, the highest rate in the ACC

Hartman makes a lot of big-time throws, and he loves to throw the ball down the field.  It’s amazing that he’s as efficient as he’s been considering how many downfield throws he makes.  Justin Fuente noted earlier this week that the Demon Deacons aren’t afraid to throw bombs from their own 1-yard line, and the advanced numbers back up that statement.

Hartman is pretty much no threat on the ground.  In fact the Wake Forest coaching staff hardly ever calls a designed quarterback run, and Hartman isn’t likely to keep the ball on an option read, either.  Last year the Hokies struggled with mobile quarterbacks but shut down pocket passers.  I don’t have enough evidence yet to back up this statement because Tech has yet to face a mobile QB, but I’ve got a hunch that the new scheme will be more successful against mobile guys, but perhaps right now it struggles a bit more with guys like Hartman.

The Demon Deacons have used four primary targets through the first four games of the season.

WR Jaquarii Roberson (6-1, 182, r-Jr.): 20 catches, 314 yards, 15.7 ypr, 1 TD
WR Donavon Greene (6-2, 198, r-Fr.): 10 catches, 198 yards, 19.8 ypr
WR Taylor Morin (5-10, 174, r-Fr.): 15 catches, 197 yards, 13.3 ypr, 2 TDs
WR A.T. Perry (6-5, 212, r-So.): 13 catches, 194 yards, 14.9 ypr, 1 TD

Greene and Perry will play on the inside.  Morin is a traditional slot receiver from Westfield High School in Northern Virginia.  Roberson is the best overall receiver on the team, as well as the most versatile receiver.  He’s also arguably the best player you’ve never heard of.  With a PFF grade of 92.6 so far this season, he’s the highest-rated offensive player in the ACC, just edging out UNC’s Javonte Williams and Virginia Tech’s Hendon Hooker and Khalil Herbert.  That should give you a pretty good idea of how good Roberson is.

The Demon Deacons will use two running backs in a rotation.

Kenneth Walker III (5-10, 206, So.): 67 carries, 383 yards, 5.7 ypc, 7 TDs
Christian Beal-Smith (5-10, 201, r-Jr.): 58 carries, 256 yards, 4.4 ypc, 4 TDs

Walker had a very good freshman season in 2019, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and running for 599 yards.  He’s picked up where he left off, and the Texas native appears to be set for a very good career in Winston-Salem.  So far this season he is the No. 3 rated tailback in the ACC by PFF, behind only Khalil Herbert and Javontae Williams.  The crazy thing is that Herbert and Walker were both ranked outside the top 2,000 by 247Sports, and Williams barely cracked the top 1,500.

Neither Walker or Beal-Smith have shown to be a threat in the passing game, however.  Walker has one  catch on the season after catching just three balls last year.  Beal-Smith does not have a catch to his credit in 2020.

On the whole, this is a really solid and balanced Wake Forest offense, and they’d be even more dangerous if Sage Surratt had returned.  The Deacs won’t quite come at you with quite the NFL talent that North Carolina possesses, but they’ve still got some really good players on offense, they are balanced, and they are well-coached.  Virginia Tech’s defense will have to take a step forward on Saturday.

(Ivan Morozov)

The Wake Forest Defense: Not Bad, But Not Good

Wake Forest’s defense is decidedly mediocre.  Here are their PFF grades for each major category…

Overall: No. 7
Rush Defense: No. 10
Tackling: No. 1
Pass Rush: No. 12
Coverage: No. 6

The Demon Deacons are below average at stopping the run, and decent-but-not-great at stopping the pass.  Their saving grace on defense is their ability to tackle.  Wake misses very few tackles, so those long runs that Khalil Herbert has been breaking off might be harder to find, and Hendon Hooker probably won’t have a field day when he gets into the open.

Wake is fine with giving up yardage, but they want to deny points as much as possible.  They allowed 561 yards to Clemson, but only 37 points (which isn’t a lot, considering it was 561 yards and Clemson), and they allowed 420 yards to UVA, but only 23 points.  The Hokies will move the football, and they’ll need to convert and score seven points on long drives.

Carlos “Boogie” Basham (6-5, 285, r-Sr.) garners the headlines for Wake Forest, though he’s not having as good a season in 2020 as he did in past years.  Here are his PFF grades from 2018 through the present…

2018: 80.4
2019: 86.8
2020: 63.5

He played his best game against Campbell and his worst game against Clemson, as you might imagine.  Against NC State and UVA he didn’t stand out in a good way or a bad way…he was just sort of there, from a grading perspective.  The Virginia Tech offensive line is playing at a very high level this season, so I feel much better about this matchup than I would have felt in past seasons.

Wake’s secondary has been their most consistent unit, where safety Zion Keith (6-1, 186, r-So.) and cornerback Caelon Carson (6-0, 182, Fr.) have been solid.  However, Carson is a true freshman and now there are four games worth of film for offensive coaches to study.  The Demon Deacons have also played a lot of players at cornerback this season, which indicates that they might not be comfortable with their personnel at that position.

Special Teams

Punt returner Taylor Morin is averaging 14 yards on six returns, while Donovan Greene has returned one kickoff for a touchdown and ranks second nationally with 43.5 yards per return.  The Deacs have a pair of dangerous return men, so the Hokies will have to keep kicking kickoffs through the endzone, and they’ll need to be cognizant of Morin’s ability on punt returns.

Placekicker Nick Sciba is a solid 7-of-10 on the season, and one of those three misses was blocked.  He’s good from long range as well, knocking down 3-of-4 of his kicks from beyond 40 yards with a long of 44. 

Wake seems middle-of-the-pack in terms of punt coverage (7.33 yards per return) and Justin Fuente mentioned on Monday night that he’s been disappointed in Tech’s punt returns this season, and he made it sound as if that would be a point of emphasis this week.  Don’t be surprised to see Tayvion Robinson finally get some running room.

(Ivan Morozov)

Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Final Thoughts

Wake Forest was described on the boards this week as a sort of poor man’s UNC, and I think that’s a pretty accurate statement.  Like the Tar Heels, they are balanced on offense, and they’ve got two good backs.  They’ve got a quarterback who can throw the ball around the yard.  Defensively they aren’t bad, but I wouldn’t classify them as good, either.  That’s pretty much the spitting image of UNC, except Wake’s version has less talent.

I like the fact that their defense is comparable to UNC’s.  However, I don’t like the fact that they have a balanced offense like the Tar Heels.  The Virginia Tech defense improved against Boston College, but a lot of that was due to the fact that the Eagles are completely unbalanced offensively.  BC gave up on the run after the first quarter, but when they were running and passing equally on those first two drives, the Hokies couldn’t stop them.

On the other hand, this is still a Wake Forest team that lost to NC State without Devin Leary at quarterback.  Yes, that NC State team who the Hokies hammered in week one actually beat the Deacs, so based on that, exactly how good are they? 

I think they are good enough offensively to hang with anybody in the conference other than Clemson, but I think they are bad enough defensively that they’ll have a chance to lose to just about anybody they play (except Syracuse).

Barring turnovers, I think the Hokies are going to be able to score plenty of points, but of course what concerns me is how many points Wake Forest will score.  As we noted earlier, the Deacs are near the top of the league in offense, and they’ll be facing a Hokie defense that has put up the following PFF ratings in the ACC so far…

Overall: Last
Rush Defense: Last
Tackling: No. 11
Pass Rush: No. 4
Coverage: No. 9

The Hokies haven’t done much well except rush the passer, though hopefully the secondary plays better as guys continue to trickle back to practice.  Tech also has a highly-rated offense, and if the Hokies were facing one of the worst-rated defenses in the whole country, we’d expect VT to put up a lot of points, right?  Therefore, I think Wake will put up a lot of points on Saturday as well.

But I think the Hokies will outscore them.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 41, Wake Forest 35

(Note: It feels very odd picking high scoring games each and every week.)

Will Stewart’s Take: This one’s got me nervous. Wake Forest’s ability to move the football in all kinds of ways offensively is concerning. One key is finding a way to get pressure on Wake QB Sam Hartman, who, according to this subscriber board post by AISHokie05, grades out 12th in the ACC when being pressured. The Deacs work the entire field with their passing game, and hopefully, some pressure will reduce their ability to do so.

Wake Forest also doesn’t turn the ball over, clocking in at No. 2 in the country at +2 per game. (But we saw how well that worked out for Boston College.) The Deacs have forced nine turnovers and committed just one. Those are crazy numbers, and if the turnover gods want to smile on the Hokies (No. 8 in the nation at +1.25 per game) for a second straight week, that’ll be fortuitous.

Other than that, I’m having trouble finding good news for Virginia Tech’s defense.

The other side of the ball is less worrisome, but Chris highlighted the key stat: Wake tackles very well. I’m interested to see what Khalil Herbert can do against their defense, because yes, Herbert breaks tackles, but his vision is also so good and the blocking is so good that he often picks up chunk yardage untouched. You can’t tackle what you’re not touching.

Wake Forest has something impressive in all phases of the game. Their offense is multi-dimensional and puts up the points; they’re No. 12 in the country with 40.3 ppg, just three spots behind Virginia Tech’s 42.0. Their defense isn’t stellar, but they know what they want to do, bend-but-don’t-break, and they do it well. Their special teams can be explosive in the return game. As a team, they haven’t turned the ball over much yet, and they don’t commit a ton of penalties, just over five a game. There’s not a lot of cracks here.

This one is going to be a challenge, and it has the potential to be a fun game, if both offenses live up their billing and don’t turn it over. The over/under is 68 points. I’m going to stick with picking high scores.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 42, Wake Forest 34

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Wake Forest football game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (49%, 692 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (44%, 611 Votes)
  • Wake Forest Wins by 1-10 (6%, 81 Votes)
  • Wake Forest Wins by 11+ (1%, 19 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,403

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Last Week’s Virginia Tech-Boston College Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Virginia Tech 40, Boston College 14

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Boston College game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (21%, 270 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (57%, 732 Votes)
  • BC wins by 1-10 (18%, 234 Votes)
  • BC wins by 11+ (3%, 42 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,278

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18 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. @AISHokie05 is another unmentioned reason to subscribe to TSL. Recommend following his posts on the Sub board (he really only posts stats analysis- good stuff).

  2. Didn’t mention that Wake D has allowed 7+ YPC vs. NCSt’s good backs and UVa’s middling tailbacks. Write it down, Khalil Herbert breaks the single-game VT rushing record 🙂 and VT goes for 350+ on the ground.

  3. Special Teams sets up short fields for our O and long field for the D, pressure on Wake’s QB Hartman gets them off the field, meanwhile the run defense of Wake is the story, as you don’t have to run for 30+ yards but keep moving the sticks,…. VT wears them out in 2nd and 4th quarter and rolls to VicTory!

    Let’s Go…Hokies!!!
    BEAT the Deacs

  4. I think this one will definitely follow the football axiom of whoever turns the ball over the least WILL win.

  5. Let’s see how our big tackles handle Basham.

    Loved Bernard Basham when he was at VT (was there ever a better name for a player) but since Boogie plays for an ACC opponent, would love to see the big guy on his back more than once.

  6. It won’t be 0-0 at the end of regulation. I, of a few, understood Frank’s reaction. As Jon Laaser says, “Live to [ ] another [ ]!” This could be shootout or a runaway (pick a team). If our D turned a corner last week, we can keep Wake’s O “in front of us.” I worry a little that we don’t break the number of tackles this week. Maybe we do. VT 38-31

  7. If VT shows up focused and ready to play at kickoff we win easy – if not it could be a long day. I hope the rain holds off so no key players (especially on defense) get injured in the wet conditions. Clawson is the only ACC coach (other than Dabo obviously) I would take if Fu took off for more cash/resources – he gets the best out of what he has at WFU.

  8. “Average depth of target: 13.1 yards, highest in the ACC

    28% of his attempts have been 20+ yards downfield, the highest rate in the ACC”

    I’m happy to see these stats. Assuming our secondary is mostly intact I smell at least 2 INTs coming this Saturday!

    1. VTs strength is rushing the passer and these stats indicate a QB that stays in the pocket a little longer and is thus susceptible to pressure (note that UNC went to a quick passing game taking the pass rush away). Also, Wake didn’t “trounce” UVa, it was 23 all early Q4 and the Hoos gave up a 75 yd TD run and fumbled a kick on their own 20 yd line to give Wake 2 TDs.

  9. After years of seeing VT defenses getting torched by mobile (and even semi-mobile) QBs, I sure hope we now have a scheme that includes shutting down a running QB. Let’s hope the execution starts catching up to the scheme before we face the likes of Miami! (And Pitt. And Liberty. And …).

  10. @Chris Coleman – always a great read, I look forward to your insights. I did wonder about your comments on Carlos “Boogie” Basham – what is his position? And maybe who will he face on the Vice squad?
    Also, minor edit – in the “Final Thoughts” section you wrote: “but when they were throwing and passing equally on those first two drives, the Hokies couldn’t stop them” I think you meant to say “running and passing equally”.
    Thanks for the great insights with these write-ups – you and Will make a great pair.

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