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Wake Forest can move the ball, can Rutgers contain it at all?

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Knights have a lot to overcome even if the defense is mostly intact.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Wake Forest Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As I flipped back and forth between revisiting my write ups on the 2017 recruiting class and drafting a post about the pros and cons of the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, I was blindsided just like everybody else by the news of Rutgers getting an unexpected bowl bid. Everyone who supports Rutgers Football will have a story for where they were when they found out Rutgers was given the Rocky-Esque opportunity in the Gator Bowl. The opponent: The 10-3 ACC Atlantic Division Champion Wake Forest Demon Deacons, covered at a glance by Aaron here.

For the circumstances they are under as a program, Wake Forest has done an amazing job the past six years at maximizing their resources. This should be noted as even more impressive considering their recruiting rankings per 247 composite not overwhelming, the last six years their recruiting classes have been rated starting in 2016 as 57th, 68th, 64th, 59th, 59th, 66th. Even with their success this season the 2022 class is just 67th. From famously redshirting everybody to playing a non-conference game against their current conference and biggest rival, UNC, to a consecutive bowl streak double what they had previously achieved in 130+ years, Head Coach Dave Clawson has done what was thought to be impossible in the outer reaches of Tobacco Road. To get here, the native New Yorker did what seemingly every school attempts; he built an explosive offense from scratch in a Power Five conference.

In 2014, the Demon Deacons were the worst offense in the country by S&P+ and improved to a slightly better 112th in 2015. For reference, the Rutgers offense that season led by streaky quarterback Chris Laviano and all-world receiver Leonte Carroo, finished 66th. That RU squad in Kyle Flood’s last year on the sideline was derailed by a defense that ranked 112th, thus beginning a bowl drought that will come to an end when the ball is kicked off in Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve at 11 am. As Rutgers tumbled to 123rd in offensive rating by 2018, Wake continued a steady climb up to 48th.

Move the clock forward to 2021 and the Winston-Salem based offense is in the top 10 by virtually every metric. Wake’s bread and butter is in some ways a revolutionary run-pass option (RPO) that seemingly never has a negative play. The key ingredient mentioned by offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero in this SI article is a variable tempo run game. This concept was kicked around theoretically for a little over a decade, but finally put into practice in the Power Five with a complexity that assembles components not yet seen on this scale.

Like most inventions, necessity was the mother of this Clawson - Ruggiero approach. The short of it is that, when they arrived Wake didn’t have the bulldozers on the offensive line to plow opponents over while also allowing the most sacks in the country. As a result, they stripped the offense down to the basics and over time have added many options within a small set of plays, the natural evolution of the triple option in a way to be more passing centric.

To oversimplify, it starts with the running back. Wake Forest almost always keeps a man in the backfield who could take a quick handoff (possibly even a direct snap), a delayed handoff that looks like an old school draw play, participate in an option run with the quarterback, stay in to block, or flare out to the flat as a late receiving option. The “Slow Mesh” was already a hot topic by 2019 and has only gotten more effective, broken down here then again in 2020 here. This running back needs to establish awesome communication with the quarterback and also read what a defense is doing almost as well as the quarterback does to ensure they are on the same page. This is critical because the wide receivers are also running option routes depending on how the defense sets up so the back needs to be trusted by the quarterback to be in the right place at the right time without an explicit assignment.

With all these variables in the hands of the skill position players, the job for the offensive line is usually straightforward and the same regardless of what routes are executed or even if the play is a run or pass. The offensive line is usually in a zone blocking scheme where they build a wall and just block the first man in front of them. Naturally when Wake runs a more traditional pulling lineman or changes up the scheme on a particular play it often catches the defense off balance. They often add extra linemen in the game in the red zone for example to add wrinkles like RU does with the Langan package. Looking at a game where the opposing team had defensive line talent to win these matchups, this cut of the Florida State game is valuable.

Can Rutgers stop it?

Pro: Rutgers might not have to stop it, but rather just contain elements if the Knights can keep the ball and score some points of their own. Syracuse who tallied just seven points against Rutgers, put up 37 in an overtime loss to Wake in early October. The Wake defense on film looks a lot like the Rutgers defense to me in its struggles to cover passes in the middle of the field and lacks the elite athletes most Big Team East defenses possess.

Con: Wake relies on a bend but don’t break defense looking for turnovers because ... the Demon Deacons still scored 40 points in that game against the Orange. In fact Wake Forest has scored 20 or more in every game this year, 30 or more 11 times, and 40 or more 8 times, and 50 or more twice. For comparison, Rutgers cracked 21 points just once against a Power Five opponent so expecting them to reach the 45+ scored by every team who beat Wake this year is a tall order. Quarterback Sam Hartman recorded seven touchdowns in a loss to UNC earlier this year where the Tar Heels simply could not control the line of scrimmage.

Pro: Wake Forest did lose to Big Ten teams in their last two bowl appearances, so it is conceivable that if Rutgers boasts defensive linemen who can penetrate within their lanes better than typical ACC team, it could neutralize the run game a little bit. Last year in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Wisconsin was able to plug the lanes reducing the effectiveness on the ground and forcing Wake to throw over the top, especially to the sidelines. This year, Clemson (not even the juggernaut they were in past years) was with their front four talent able to collapse the pocket and keep Hartman from scrambling. They forced him to areas where a linebacker with the athleticism to tackle him in open space was waiting. In the screenshot below the Tigers overwhelm Wake’s offensive line by winning one on one matchups so Hartman cannot even see his open check down (yellow box) and his emergency valve right side rollout (red arrow) is cut off so he cannot hit a wide open receiver (red box) to get positive yards on first down.

Con: For Deacon players to execute they need a lot of reps to master the fundamentals, so the bowl prep period allowed even more younger players to practice should they need to be plugged in. The scheme calls for good team chemistry and execution which has Clemson even up 18 points playing seven men in the box (yellow rectangle) to stop the run. The linebacker has no chance to cut off (red arrow) a properly run option route by the slot receiver (green box). This play would have gone for big yards had the running back been able to stand up to the linebacker (teal arrow).

Instead a chain reaction bumps into the quarterback.

Pro: Hartman has thrown for nearly 4,000 yards, but no one else has even tossed for a cumulative 100 through the air so if he has a bad day or has trouble seeing throwing lanes (he is listed at 6’1”) that should shrink his available options.

Con: Wake has three players other plus Hartman who have run for at least five touchdowns and more than 400 yards this year. Army who was undermanned physically was steamrolled. Even though Clemson was able to outmuscle Wake a few times, the Demon Deacons went wildcat and were able to score a touchdown by winning the line of scrimmage below, so don’t be fooled, they are not pure finesse.

Pro: This game will be played on grass and Wake’s home field is artificial so their timing could be slightly off. Many of the option routes run by the receivers require precise timing, and if that route timing is off the quarterback not only can throw an inaccurate ball, the quarterback could misread entirely what the receiver is doing.

Con: Rutgers has very little time themselves to practice on grass. They struggled in pass coverage every game against competent passing teams this season so this minor risk is probably not going to do much more than impact a few plays here and there. Hartman doesn’t always throw for a high percentage but risks for big plays that won this game against Louisville. Clemson made mistakes in the run game too, for example overrunning this play below despite a stacked box and Wake gets a touchdown out of it. Clemson’s run blitz fails miserably, the ball carrier (teal arrow) evades an off balance defender (green arrow) who was not expecting a quick hitter (as he was more concerned with the QB running to the outside). Then the back jukes the safety (red arrow) who is leaning en route to pay dirt. Note Clemson plays on the exact same surface (Tifway 419 Bermuda Grass) as TIAA Bank Field.

This is the type of execution coaches expect their teams to perform regularly, but very few actually can. The Demon Deacons do, especially the running back #23 handling the edge setting defender. The overhead angle shows a thing of beauty:

Pro: Wake Forest boasts two 1,000 yard receivers, but Rutgers’s best two defensive players this year were probably Max Melton and Kessawn Abraham who play cornerback. Clemson had the cornerback talent to make plays on these balls and benefitted from some that single game luck. Wake made plenty of 50-50 ball catches that perhaps could skew away from the mean, it’s just one game.

Con: Don’t be lulled to sleep though because Hartman really understands how to read leverage of defenders and throw the ball into open windows. With the different tempos at the snap, timing of RPO, and Hartman’s ability to extend plays, covering receivers for five or six seconds is virtually impossible for anybody. The offensive line despite the complexity of the scheme for skill position players allows very, very few free rushers probably because they have mastered the smaller playbook. This reminds me a lot of what Sean Gleeson’s offense is supposed to be when he has the horses in its simplicity for the offensive line. If given too much time, Hartman will find receivers. For example the play below:

Green circle plenty of space to step into throw.

If back shoulder throws come out this late, it’s difficult for any Defensive Back. Below the defender has no idea where or when the ball will get to the receiver. Clemson got better as the game went along but was victimized here.

The receiver pictured above is Jaquarii Roberson (71 catches, 1,078 yards, 8 TD). He has declared for the draft and therefore will skip the bowl game per our sister site covering Wake Forest. The players who did declare for the NFL Draft on the Rutgers side that applied for an NCAA waiver to play remains to be confirmed as Schiano wouldn’t discuss it at his presser. The compliance officers who need to do some extra work over the holiday should be thanked as well. I do hope some of the players in these extenuating circumstances are allowed to play if they choose to because this is what college athletics is all about, opportunity, excitement, and being resilient.

The Pittsburgh tape showed a lot of the same as they defeated Wake in the ACC title game thus denying the Demon Deacons a New Year’s Six Bowl. The Panthers were able to collapse the pocket with their defensive ends and avoid gaping running lanes opening up. Will whomever lines up at DE for Rutgers be able to have the same effect? Sometimes Hartman was still able to find an open man, but Pitt kept chopping and won the game 45-21.

Post corner (red arrow) eventually opens up after a great throw on the run.

First off all, let me be clear that I get it. The logistics are challenging and Rutgers could get demolished after not practicing in weeks against a team that was surely better than them in 2021 even at full strength. Even had they practiced, the team even with its full complement of players struggled against even average passing attacks all year and would not have been a fit for an opponent that had as much success as Wake Forest. Throw in that college football games are usually scheduled several years in advance and it’s obvious the conditions for fielding a competitive squad in the most prestigious RU bowl appearance are pretty slim.

The path to victory is obvious for Rutgers but relies on a lot of conditional coulds and shoulds, very little of which Rutgers was able to execute consistently all season. With more preparation time, Greg Schiano has shown a great success rate off bye weeks and in his bowl appearances (5-1 career). Unfortunately he has to be more worried about just getting to Jacksonville at this point than scheming up a defense. And even if the defense can hold Wake in the 30s or even 20s, will Rutgers score enough on offense? Let’s hope that no one gets hurt, some lifelong positive memories are made, and the Scarlet Knights represent the university with pride.

Poll

How many points will Wake Forest score in the Gator Bowl?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Under 20. Rutgers is the best defense they have played all season.
    (19 votes)
  • 18%
    20-29. This would be considered a great defensive effort by the Knights.
    (45 votes)
  • 33%
    30-39. Par for the course.
    (80 votes)
  • 29%
    40-49. A shorthanded team on a short prep schedule.
    (71 votes)
  • 9%
    50+. We miss Robb Smith already.
    (23 votes)
238 votes total Vote Now