As we looked forward towards the season during the spring and summer months, it appeared that the Midshipmen would face their toughest test against Rutgers in the second game of the season. And while we still have half a season to go and taking nothing away from the Scarlet Knights (except, of course, their idiot students) it now appears that the Wake Forest Demon Deacons- last year’s ACC champions- pose the biggest test for Navy in the 2007 season.
Wake is a good team, perhaps even better than last year’s version. Those are some lofty words, but considering the Deacons haven’t had the benefit of last year’s amazing turnover ratio it may not be as ridiculous as it sounds. Like Navy, Wake Forest struggled early in the year, losing games to 3rd ranked Boston College and a 20-17 contest to Nebraska on a late no-call on what appeared to be obvious pass interference. And, like Navy, Wake fell behind early in their fourth game, and just as it looked like the prospects to repeat as ACC champions were in doubt, the Wake Forest defense picked the team off the ground and sparked a huge comeback against Maryland. Wake proceeded to win the next two games, bringing their season record to 4-2. Now, on the cusp of the Top 25 and eyeing the “easier” portion of the conference schedule, Wake is in good position to make a late season run as ACC Atlantic division champions, and in the process end any talk of a 2006 “fluke.”
Any discussion of Wake Forest has to start with seventh year head coach Jim Grobe. The job he’s done in setting up the program for success took time, but as we saw last year it ultimately culminated in a winning campaign. Grobe of course got his “break” at the Air Force Academy, where he served as an assistant for Fisher DeBerry for ten seasons. Grobe’s offensive coordinator and offensive line coach is Steed “I have a freaking awesome name” Lobotzke, who Grobe coached at the Air Force Academy in the early nineties. Obviously both of these coaches bring portions of the option offense with their pedigrees, but have also adapted it to today’s contemporary game of zone everything. Earlier this week, Paul Johnson equated Wake’s offense with the current Air Force offense under Troy Calhoun, only that the former was Air Force on “warp speed.” Having had the opportunity to watch quite a few Wake Forest games this season, I can certainly back up what coach Johnson is saying, and after watching Wake beat Florida State 24-21 the other night I’d say that Wake’s offense I a more efficient, more talented machine than what Coach Calhoun is running in Colorado Springs.
Despite being 89th in total offense, Wake Forest’s offense scares me, and not only because Navy’s defense (ranked 102nd in the country) is so bad. Remember, this is a Wake team which was without quarterback Riley Skinny for several weeks, and one which played the likes of Boston College, Maryland, and Florida State. You get the point, they haven’t exactly had time to pad the stat book. Nevertheless, this is a dangerous offense that features a veteran, talented offensive line and a host of speedy skill position players. And that’s not even mentioning their quarterback, who oh by the way was 2nd Team All-ACC as a redshirt freshmen last year. As coach Johnson alluded to, what Wake does offensively is not unlike Air Force, although the Demon Deacons don’t rely on speed option looks as much as the Falcons do. There is in fact no easy way to describe Wake’s offense beside “variable” as they run a number of looks from various sets, including zone reads, counters, end-arounds, and just about anything else an NFL fan would describe as “trickeration.” Unlike Air Force however, Wake is running this offense with much more talented personnel and a much better offensive line. So instead of gameplanning for one Chad Hall, you’ve got to account for three or four of them, plus figure out how to come off blocks while playing disciplined in the secondary. Wake’s rushing offense is of considerable concern for Navy, especially with Navy’s struggles up front. The Wake Forest offense leans heavily on a group of talented backs, among them redshirt freshmen Josh Adams (364 yards, 5.3 avg) and senior Micah Andrews (223 yards, 3.3 avg.) Wake’s most dangerous offensive player is Kenneth Moore, a wide receiver who does just about everything for the Demon Deacons. Moore is a guy with breakaway speed and phenomenal vision, and is the kind of guy that Wake will try to get the ball to in a number of ways. With Wake’s imposing and athletic offensive line lead by center Steve Justice, my biggest concern is that Navy;s linebackers will struggle to read and react to plays, and by the time they do Wake will be able to get a body on them. For as good as this offense will be against Navy however, there are weaknesses. Foremost among these have been turnovers, as Riley Skinner has nearly doubled his interception total from all of last year in only four games of action thus far. He’s thrown nine interceptions to only four touchdowns; a disturbing statistic when you consider Wake’s passing offense operates in a similar facet a Navy’s. Likewise, for as good as Wake is at the running back position, keep in mind that talent wise this team isn’t exactly USC yet. This means that on the off chance Navy’s defensive players do find themselves in position, they will have the opportunity to make plays on the football or the ballcarrier.
On the other side of the ball things don’t look so daunting for the Midshipmen, who sport the 21st best offense in the country and the top ranked rushing attack. Wake is currently ranked 46th in total defense, and sports the 22nd ranked run defense yielding just over 100 yards per game. For perspective, consider that Army ran the ball 38 times at Wake’s defense, but only came up with 117 yards (just over 3 yards per carry.) I know Army isn’t exactly Navy running the ball, but it’s going to take more than will alone to move the football against Wake. Wake’s biggest strength on defense is clearly the secondary, in particular the cornerback position. Alphonso Smith is a shutdown guy with big-play ability, and has already taken three interceptions back for scores this season. Navy does get a break in that this Wake Forest defense has been geared more towards balanced, pro-style offenses this season, but talent wise this front seven is right up there with Duke and Pittsburgh. It will be especially interesting to see how Wake’s front seven react to Navy’s triple option offense. One would figure that that because of the nature of Wake’s offense that the defense would be welled schooled in the attributes of defending the option, although it’s worthwhile to point out that triple option out of the flexbone isn’t exactly the zone-read/spread offense that Wake runs. I’m of the undaunted opinion that Navy can move the ball on most anyone, and despite having an especially quick front seven I think Navy will score on Wake. The real question will be whether or not Wake’s defensive speed can translate into turnovers, which the defense lived off of last season. Wake has scored five touchdowns off of either interceptions or fumbles this season, and one of the keys to beating the Demon Deacons is not giving them “easy” points on defense.
It’s also worth noting that Wake is solid on special teams, a facet of the game that Navy has struggled with this season. Sam Swank, the Wake Forest kicker, is perfect on field goal attempts and extra points, and is two of two at distances over 40 yards. Don’t overlook Swank in this game, especially considering how Navy’s games have gone over the past couple of weeks. He’s one of the best kickers in the game and if it comes down to a crucial kick, don’t for a second think Grobe won’t have the confidence in him to get it done. The aforementioned Kenneth Moore is also dangerous punt returned who has already scored once this year.
Wake Forest is a good football team, one which rightfully deserves to be on the cusp of the Top 25. They are talented, veteran, and more than anything else well coached. Yet for all we’ve heard about Wake Forest, it’s worth mentioning that they are not by any means a dominant team. It’s an important distinction to make, and a quick perusal of Wake’s results show that over the last two seasons they’ve only really “blown out” one team (oddly enough, last year’s 30-0 romp of Florida State.) This means, among other things, that Navy will have the capability to stay in this game, despite the obvious advantages Wake holds in most facets of the game. Let’s not sell ourselves short here. The offense is very good, and what they did to a fairly decent Pitt defense lack week can only be described as impressive. I’m not saying were going to see another 500+ yard game of total offense, but let’s just say I have a haunch this isn’t going to turn out like last year’s homecoming game. While Wake’s defense isn’t bad, I’d be careful to overestimate their capabilities, especially against an offense like Navy’s. Remember, the last time Grobe and his team (Seattle bowl bound Wake in 2002) played Navy they gave up 27 points to a much less talented team that only won two games that year, and despite the huge strides Wake has made they aren’t beyond being upset. By the same token, if the Mids do lose to Wake, it’s not the end of the world. Remember, this is a streaking Wake team right now that could very well find itself in the ACC title game by year’s end. This is going to clearly be Navy’s toughest test all year, but with the way Kaipo-Noa and the offense are clicking I would not count the Midshipmen out.
Navy’s Keys to the Game and Final Prediction coming Friday Morning. Also, be sure to check out The Old Gold & Blog, where Zach and Phelix from the Bird Dog have done a little Q&A regarding the game.