After the Rutgers game last week, I changed the channel and flipped over to the Wake Forest-Florida State game. I figured, hey, why not take another look at Navy’s next opponent? So I watched for a few minutes, but eventually I just started chuckling to myself. Who was I kidding? What was I going to learn about Wake Forest by watching them play Florida State? I mean, it’s Florida freakin’ State! Sure, they aren’t the Seminoles of years past, but it isn’t like I could notice something the Noles were doing on defense and wonder if maybe Navy could try the same thing. Florida State’s athletes can get away with things that Navy’s athletes cannot. So I watched the whole thing (minus a couple of flips over to LSU-Auburn), but it really wasn’t worth watching with a very critical eye.
Frankly, breaking down how the Deacs played against the Seminoles would sort of be missing the point. The point is that even on a bad day, they’re going to be good. After blowing out Baylor (who has THE ÜBERMENSCH Robert Griffin) in week 1, coming back to beat Ole Miss in their second game, and grinding out a win against Florida State last week, Wake Forest has opened up with wins over Big 12, SEC, and ACC teams. That’s a whole new level, folks. The Deacs are the highest-ranked team in the ACC, and if they can beat Clemson next week they’ll have the inside track to a spot in the ACC championship game and a shot at their second BCS bowl in three years. Wake Forest is the best team on Navy’s schedule, and it really isn’t close.
I doubt that’s what Navy officials thought would happen back when they scheduled this game. Any game against a BCS opponent is tough, of course. But while Navy might have expected a tough matchup, they probably didn’t expect to be facing an ACC title contender. And why would they? Success has historically been difficult to achieve at Wake Forest, a small, prestigious private school in a conference full of giant state universities. Before 2006, Wake’s last ACC title was in 1970; and even that team only went 6-5. Ah, but that was before Jim Grobe. There’s an old saying in football, that good teams either do something different, or they do it better. Navy fans can appreciate that when it comes to winning at a school where money and academic standards make it harder to recruit the same kind of player as most of the other teams on your schedule, that usually means doing something different. And that’s what Jim Grobe has done. He gets talented players at Wake Forest, but the recruiting pool at Wake is smaller than at Clemson or Florida State. You just can’t get the same quantity. Grobe’s solution? Make up for the talent gap with experience.
Of the 44 players on Wake Forest’s two-deep depth chart, 41 have redshirted. That includes 24 redshirt juniors and seniors (including one grad student), 11 of whom make up the starting defense. Jim Grobe redshirts just about everyone, and by doing so he levels the playing field. You know how the Florida Marlins won the World Series by stocking up on players for a year or two, taking their shot, then having a fire sale to cut salary until they can afford to make another run? This is sort of college football’s equivalent. 33 players on Wake’s roster are in their fourth, fifth, or sixth year in the program. It takes time to develop his players, but sometimes you get that recruiting class or two where everyone pans out. When that happens, it’s like the perfect storm; you get talent AND experience. You have a chance to be really special. And that’s what you have with the Wake Forest defense.
Demon Deacon cornerback Alphonso Smith might be the best individual player on any team Navy plays this year. Smith was first team All-ACC and a third team AP All-American last year after leading the country with 8 interceptions (a school record). Three of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, including a 100-yard return against Maryland. Smith is more than just a cover corner; he isn’t afraid to make a big hit, and led the ACC with four forced fumbles in 2007. Smith and fellow cornerback Brandon Ghee lock down opposing wide receivers well enough to allow the safeties to play run support. Chip Vaughn returns after leading the team in tackles in 2007. Kevin Patterson is all over the field; he’s third on the team in tackles, leads the team with 3 interceptions already, and has two forced fumbles and a tackle for loss. That secondary, combined with excellent linebackers in Aaron Curry, Stanley Arnoux, and Chantz McClinic, lead a very aggressive and very productive defense.
How productive? Wake’s defense is averaging only 101 rushing yards allowed per game. In 2007, the Deacs held their opponents to less than 100 rushing yards eight times. Florida State never even entered the red zone last week. But the most impressive thing about Wake’s defense are the turnovers. Wake Forest has forced 15 already this year– three against Ole Miss, five at Baylor, and a whopping seven last week in Tallahassee. It’s been a huge boost for the offense, which hasn’t quite played up to expectations so far. Of the 83 points Wake Forest has scored this season, 34 have been off of turnovers. In 2007, Wake Forest led the country with eight touchdowns scored by its defense… including one against the Mids.
Offensively, Wake Forest has yet to hit its stride. The Demon Deacon offense is about running the ball and throwing quick, high-percentage passes to get the ball to playmakers in space. Quarterback Riley Skinner is connecting on an eye-grabbing 70% of his passes, but only averages about 6.5 yards per attempt since the Deacs don’t try many hard throws. D.J. Boldin leads the ACC with 6.7 catches per game. While the passing game seems to be business as usual, the running game is not. Wake is averaging less than 100 yards rushing per game, including a scant 59 yards against FSU. Then again, that’s FSU. Rutgers couldn’t run the ball either until they played Navy. Josh Adams, last year’s ACC rookie of the year, will certainly be looking to get on track the way Rutgers did with Jourdan Brooks last week.
This isn’t the first time that Wake Forest’s defense dominated Florida State before playing Navy. Last year they just held the Seminoles to 47 yards on 24 carries the week before the Navy game. Still, Navy was able to score on its first three drives of the game with Kaipo at the helm. But after Aaron Curry blitzed on a counter option play and knocked Kaipo out of the game with a crushing hit, Navy scored only once more the rest of the way while committing three turnovers. The Deacs kept things simple at first. They played a 5-man front and attacked the option from the inside out; the give key always took the fullback, the pitch key always took the quarterback, and the secondary played up in run support to take the pitch. Paul Johnson answered by mixing in play-action passes to keep the safeties honest. None of them worked, but they did put a scare into the secondary and freed things up for the slotback a little. PJ also used the counter option quite a bit, but he might have taken a drink from that well a few too many times. The counter option is a tough read for the quarterback because he starts the play with his back to the defender he’s supposed to read. If that defender blitzes, the QB only has the blink of an eye to recognize it and get the pitch off. Kaipo didn’t even have that long, as Aaron Curry is one fast linebacker. If Wake uses the same tactic, don’t be surprised to see the fullback screen a couple of times, and maybe even the double option with the fullback. And of course, more play-action for keeping the safeties in line.
Navy’s defense had no answer for Kenny Moore last year. He was all over the place, bringing in 15 catches for 181 yards. But as bad as the defense was, Wake Forest was far from their worst game. Turnovers and special teams hiccups made things worse than they had to be. Wake’s four offensive touchdowns came on drives started on their own 40 yard line or better. On the five drives the Deacs began from no closer than their own 30, the Mids held them to three field goals. Field position was crucial. That might be a concern this week, as the kickoff coverage had problems containing Rutgers. Obviously, Wake’s short passing game will make tackling particularly important as well. Fortunately, after a relatively solid performance last week, a lot of “ORs” are coming off of the depth chart for the first-string defense. This means that Buddy Green is starting to get confident that he has players on the field who can carry out assignments and make a play. It might also mean that the defensive playbook could start opening up a little more.
Navy isn’t supposed to win this game. Wake Forest is a top-15 team for a reason. But don’t be surprised if the Mids are hanging around with a shot to win it at the end of the game. Both Kaipo and Eric Kettani were caught from behind on runs last week that would’ve been long touchdowns if they were healthy. The team is getting better. Their best football is yet to come.