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Heel Tough Blog: Wake Forest Preview

Saturday night’s game with Notre Dame was the start of one of the most difficult stretches in recent memory for Tar Heel football and this week the Tar Heels welcome the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the best all-around team that the Tar Heels will face this season, to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels will be hoping to end the Deacons undefeated start to the season and knock them out of the College Football Playoff discussion. In order to do that, though, the Tar Heels might have to play their best game of the 2021 season.

Team Breakdowns

Tar Heels

It has been very well stated that this has not been the type of season that many of the fans and media members were expecting, but this is still a Tar Heel team that can accomplish some things to close the season out and upset the apple cart a bit in the ACC. The reason they can is that this is still a productive offense that the Tar Heels are bringing to the table. It is of course led by quarterback Sam Howell, who is having a year that is rivaling his career year from a year ago in terms of total production. The road to that production has been a bit different with the majority of it coming on the ground, but he is still playing like one of the nation’s top quarterbacks despite having to make that adjustment. Running alongside of him all season long has been Josh Downs, who is putting together one of the greatest single receiving seasons in ACC history. So far this season, he has caught at least eight passes in every game, had at least 50 or more receiving yards in every game and had at least one touchdown in all but one game so far this season. The biggest issue has been getting consistent help around him this year, but Saturday night’s game against Notre Dame provided some hope with the performances of Antoine Green and Justin Olson, who are the only remaining veteran options out there with Khafre Brown and Emery Simmons both in the transfer. The good news is, Phil Longo appears to be looking to get his tight ends the football more and he should be after the breakout performance from Bryson Nesbit against the Irish and the steady season that Kamari Morales has put together. The offense has also received a bit of a boost from Ty Chandler, who has stringed together back-to-back nice games and has become a big play threat for this offense when he can find space. The biggest key for this offense’s continued progression is the offensive line that showed signs of progress on Saturday night, but must continue to progress to get where they want to go. Mack Brown says the health of the center position has been the key to the improved success of the unit, but they still have plenty of room for improvement moving forward.

The defensive is the big concern with this Tar Heel team right now and they will be tested big time on Saturday. Up front, this group simply has to be able to get more push overall and more pressure in pass rushing situations because they are losing way too often right now. It starts with the veteran members of the unit, who need to step up and lead the charge for a group that simply has to get off blocks and make plays for this defense to have any chance. That would take pressure off of a defensive backfield that has struggled with how much has been put on their plate this season. The safety position remains inconsistent, especially in run defense, but that group is being expected to do more in that department than they should be. At corner, there have been struggles with the 50/50 balls all season long, primarily at the No. 2 corner spot and secondary as a whole has been riddled with communication issues since the get go. The linebacking group has been solid, but has had a lot of pressure on them as well with how porous the defensive line has been at times. The team has found a gem in Cedric Gray, who might be the best overall player on this defense right now and his has paired nicely with Jeremiah Gemmel, who is the vocal leader of this unit but hasn’t been near as dominant as we thought he could be.

The special teams unit continues to show promise this season, led by the improved play for the team in the return games. Both Josh Downs and Ja’Qurious Conley have been able to bring life to the punt and kick return games. Punter Ben Kiernan has had a nice season so far but the hope is that he will not have to be used much going forward. Kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim hasn’t been nearly as automatic as he was a year ago but he has still had some nice success for the Tar Heels. Kicker Grayson Atkins remains a bit inconsistent, but has been able to expand his range this season and the staff still appears to have plenty of trust in him.

Wake Forest

As we mentioned, the Demon Deacons are in the College Football Playoff hunt thanks to an 8-0 start to their season and that charge is led by one of the most complete offenses in the entire country. Quarterback Sam Hartman, who gave the Tar Heels a ton of issues in their meeting in Chapel Hill last year, is starting to creep on to some people’s Heisman Trophy board with just how successful he has been so far this season, especially through the air. He is surrounded by a ton of talent in the backfield with three different running backs that have totaled at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in Christian Beal-Smith, Christian Turner and Justice Ellison. Hartman has two of the conference's best in Jaquarii Roberson and A.T. Perry and the depth at the position is very solid, with two other receivers having at least 250 yards receiving and three touchdowns. The Demon Deacons boast one of the best offensive lines in the conference and will be a challenge for the Tar Heels on Saturday.

The Demon Deacons defense have had their issues this season, but they have mastered the bend but don’t break mentality. This is a defense that has struggled mightily to stop the run, but this is a group that has forced a ton of turnovers and gotten pressure on quarterbacks throughout the win. It all starts on that defensive line, which doesn’t have a standout like some of the other lines that the Tar Heels have faced this season but has a lot of assets here that are making their presence felt. Rondell Bothroyd, Luiji Vilain and Miles Fox are the most productive members of the unit, but the depth is impressive, as well. The one concern for them is that run defense, where the unit has been pushed around a bit throughout the season. The secondary is tremendous when it comes to pass defense and forcing turnovers led by Traveon Redd, who has been involved in six turnovers forced this season. Ja’Sir Taylor, the veteran, and Caelan Carson, the freshman, have had big seasons themselves on the outside. At linebacker, Luke Masteron and Ryan Smenda Jr. have been a part of that run defense that has been getting gashed at times this season.

The special teams unit for the Demon Deacons is probably the most sound special teams group that the Tar Heels have faced this season. Place kicker Nick Sciba is one of the most reliable kickers in the country and both return games are in good shape and are threats to rip off big returns at any time. Punter Ivan Mora might be the weakest part of this group and he is averaging a very solid 43.3 yards per punt.

Team Stats

Tar Heels

Off. PPG: 36.5 (22nd)

Off. PYPG: 280.8 (24th)

Off. RYPG: 202.1 (26th)

Off. TYPG: 482.9 (12th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 49.5% (9th)

Def. PPG: 30.8 (T-100th)

Def. PYPG: 221.0 (59th)

Def. RYPG: 175.6 (94th)

Def. TYPG: 396.6 (77th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 41.1% (89th)

Sacks: 15.0 (T-83th)

Interceptions: 7 (T-56th)

Turnover Margin: -1 (T-76th)

Wake Forest

Off. PPG: 43.4 (5th)

Off. PYPG: 311.5 (14th)

Off. RYPG: 184.0 (46th)

Off. TYPG: 495.5 (9th)

Off. 3rd Down %: 52.1% (5th)

Def. PPG: 23.9 (55th)

Def. PYPG: 219.8 (57th)

Def. RYPG: 201.9 (115th)

Def. TYPG: 421.7 (96th)

Def. 3rd Down %: 41.1% (88th)

Sacks: 23.0 (22nd)

Interceptions: 8 (T-34th)

Turnover Margin: +10 (T-4th)

Keys To The Game

Limit Mistakes

Despite the fact that the Tar Heels are somehow favored in this game this would still be an upset. Because of that, there are a lot of similarities to the keys from last week, including this one which is always important in an upset recipe. The Tar Heels need to be able to hold onto the football against this aggressive Wake Forest defense that will be looking to force turnovers and they need to cut down on the penalties that have been so costly in two of the last three games.

Win the Turnover Margin

Wake Forest has done a great job of taking care of the football so far this year, but the Tar Heels have to be able to come away with the turnover advantage if they want to win this one. Wake is a team that could be feeling a little bit of pressure down the stretch here and the Tar Heels have had moments where they have been able to create a few turnovers to turn the tides of games. They will need to have that happen again on Saturday if they want to win this one.

Feed Off of the Home Environment

Some people are concerned about the home crowd for this one, but this has been a crowd that has shown up all season so far and this is against one of the nation’s top ten teams with a chance to pull a major upset. Wake Forest comes into this game with a lot of pressure on them as they are in the midst of arguably the best season in their program’s history meaning they could be a bit stiff early on. The Tar Heels need to feed off of that and a home environment that has been good to them since Mack Brown’s return and pressure a team that has never really been in this spot before into an even more uncomfortable situation.

Injury Report

Tar Heels

OUT- Beau Corrales (sports hernia)

QUEST- Storm Duck (lower body), Caleb Hood (upper body)

PROB- Chris Collins (undisclosed)

Wake Forest

OUT- Coby Davis (undisclosed), Chelen Garnes (foot), Donovan Greene (undisclosed), Chase Monroe (undisclosed), Je’Vionte’ Nash (undisclosed)

DOUBT- Ja’Corey Johns (undisclosed)

PROB- Nasir Greer (undisclosed)

Projected Starting Lineups

Tar Heels Offense

QB# 7 Sam Howell, So.

RB#19 Ty Chandler, Sr.

WR#83 Justin Olson, So.

WR# 3 Antoine Green, Sr.

WR#11 Josh Downs, So.

TE#84 Garrett Walston, Sr. OR #88 Kamari Morales, So.

LT#72 Asim Richards, Jr.

LG#75 Joshua Ezeudu, Jr.

C#69 Quiron Johnson, Sr.

RG#73 Marcus McKethan, Sr.

RT#74 Jordan Tucker, Sr. Defense

END#25 Kaimon Rucker, So.

NOSE#51 Raymond Vohasek, Jr.

TACKLE# 8 Myles Murphy, So.

OLB#12 Tomon Fox, Sr.

OLB#17 Chris Collins, Jr.

ILB#44 Jeremiah Gemmel, Sr.

ILB#33 Cedric Gray, So.

CB#20 Tony Grimes, So.

FS# 4 Trey Morrison, Jr.

SS# 9 Cam’Ron Kelly, Jr.

CB# 2 Don Chapman, Jr.

NB# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, So. Special Teams

K#17 Grayson Atkins, Sr.

KOS#95 Jonathan Kim, Jr.

P#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

LS#61 Drew Little, Jr.

H#91 Ben Kiernan, Jr.

KR# 0 Ja’Qurious Conley, So.

PR#11 Josh Downs, So.

Wake Forest Offense

QB#10 Sam Hartman, So.

RB# 1 Christian Beal-Smith, Jr.

WR# 5 Jaquarii Roberson, Jr.

WR# 9 A.T. Perry, So.

WR#83 Jacob Morin, RFr.

TE#23 Brandon Chapman, Sr.

LT#50 Zach Tom, Jr.

LG#79 Sean Maginn, Jr.

C#55 Michael Jurgens, So.

RG#59 Loic Ngassam Nya, Jr.

RT#62 DeVonte Gordon, RFr. Defense

DE#40 Rondell Bothroyd, So.

DT#95 Dion Bergan Jr., Jr.

DT#11 Miles Fox, Sr.

DE# 2 Luiji Vilain, Sr.

LB#12 Luke Masterson, Sr.

LB# 5 Ryan Smenda Jr., Jr.

ROVER#17 Traveon Redd, Sr.

CB# 6 Ja’Sir Taylor, Sr.

S#28 Zion Keith, So.

S#45 Nick Andersen, Fr.

CB#29 Caelen Carson, Fr. Special Teams

K# 4 Nick Sciba, Jr.

KOS# 4 Nick Sciba, Jr.

P#36 Ivan Mora, RFr.

LS#90 Jacob Zuhr, Fr.

H#88 Zach Murphy, Jr.

KR# 6 Ja’Sir Taylor, Sr.

PR#83 Taylor Morin, RFr.


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