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Three Keys to Victory: Wake Forest

Three necessary objectives for the regular season finale

Throw the Kitchen Sink

Sam Hartman elevated his game to another level this season, his fourth with the Demon Deacons. In his three games after Wake’s bye week, he averaged 420 yards per game and threw 13 touchdowns. However, in the last three games, Hartman struggled to maintain his efficiency. Against North Carolina and NC State, he failed to complete 50% of his passes. He’s also turned the ball over at least twice in each of the last three games.

Part of the reason for this is that defenses are starting to blitz more and bring more pressure against Hartman. This strategy is successful because Hartman is not a great runner and he does not possess great arm talent, especially while on the move. In the previous three contests, defenses have increased their pressure rate against him in each game: 27.1% against UNC, 29.3% against NC State, and 42.3% against Clemson.

Hartman’s play drops off by a significant margin when is blitzed and especially when he is pressured. This is somewhat different than some of the QBs BC faced recently, in that they can succeed when the pocket collapses due to their running ability. Hartman lacks that ability, as he can pick up a few yards off an option, but he can’t consistently victimize defenses with his feet. He also does not have a traditionally strong arm, especially when he’s forced to throw on the run. Hartman has been quite effective throwing deep, but those throws are almost exclusively made from the pocket.

In order to take advantage of these flaws, I would suggest that Tem Lukabu dials up lots of pressures for the BC defense. Lukabu hasn’t been the most pressure-heavy play-caller, as he prefers to situationally blitz to catch the offense off-balance. However, against Wake Forest’s RPO-heavy offense, blitzing could be very effective. The blitz would not only help stop the handoffs; it would also get more defenders in Hartman’s face. He’s already had 12 passes batted at the line of scrimmage, tied for third-most among FBS quarterbacks.

Blitzing would also mess up the timing of the RPO throws upon which the Wake offense depends. If the Eagles’ defense can force Hartman off his mark and outside the pocket, they should be able to force him to throw the ball away or bring him down for sacks. Furthermore, if they blitz early and often, it will make Hartman assume the pressure is coming, at which point BC can start dropping more players into coverage, ideally leading to incompletions and interceptions. Finally, at this point, BC only has a bowl game left so it’s time to empty the tank and leave everything on the field; let no blitz go uncalled.

Ground Control (to Major Tom)

So far in their magical season, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons have ridden their offense to many high-scoring victories. With veteran quarterback Sam Hartman at the helm, behind a veteran offensive line, and throwing to explosive receivers like AT Perry and Jaquarii Roberson, Wake is fourth in the country and second in the ACC in points per game (43.1). However, especially in recent weeks, their defense has been almost as bad as their offense has been good. In their last five games, Wake Forest has allowed their opponents to score at least 42 points in four of them, and over 50 in two of them. Currently, the Demon Deacons rank 92nd in the FBS and 10th in the ACC in points allowed per game (30.82).

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Wake is even worse in terms of yards allowed. They rank 111th (11th in ACC) in total defense, allowing 449.4 yards per game and 6.08 yards per play. They’re allowing 213.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 120th in the FBS and 13th in the ACC. Wake is slightly better against the pass (77th FBS, 8th ACC, 235.6 YPG) but they’re also very bad on third downs; they allow conversions on 41.6% of third down, which ranks 94th in the FBS and 11th in the ACC.

Therefore, the best strategy to exploit both Wake’s porous defense and their potent offense is to maintain control of the ball. I know some fans won’t like to hear this, but BC needs to keep leaning on their running game. For most of the season, Boston College has been able to run the ball effectively. They struggled against teams that are consistently successful against the run, mostly due to their big, strong defensive lines. Wake Forest’s defensive line does not have any such stars, although defensive end Rondell Bothroyd is having an excellent season, leading the team in TFLs (12.5) and sacks (6.0). Furthermore, the Demon Deacons are also tied for 18th and tied for 5th in the ACC in team tackles for loss with 75 (6.8 per game).

To accomplish this, the Eagles’ offensive line simply needs to play better. The tackles struggled immensely against Florida State’s explosive defensive ends. Ideally, Christian Mahogany will return to the lineup on Saturday to join an offensive line that will be sending off three graduates on Senior Day. One has to imagine that Zion Johnson, Alec Lindstrom, and Ben Petrula will be very motivated to make their last game on the Heights a good one, ideally ending in an upset victory and BC’s first victory over a ranked team since 2014.

Be Aggressive

With all that being said, even though BC should be relatively conservative with their playcalling, they should be as aggressive as possible in terms of decision-making. One of the main hallmarks of the analytical revolution of football is the increased aggressiveness on fourth-downs. Teams and coaches have found that they can increase their win probability at key moments by choosing to go for it on fourth instead of being conservative, punting it to the other team, and putting the game on the defense. Against Wake Forest, Jeff Hafley and Frank Cignetti need to apply these lessons to their gameplan.

Obviously, they shouldn’t just go for it on every fourth down, such as if it was 4th & 12 on their own 29. But I would think that any fourth down from their own 40-yard line going forward and any fourth down with less than five yards to go should be on the table. This aggressiveness should create two positive outcomes. Firstly, it should accomplish the previous goal of holding onto the ball as long as possible. If BC can continue to convert 3rd and 4th downs, that will extend their drives and keep Wake Forest’s offense off the field.

Secondly, adding fourth down as an extra opportunity to convert fourth downs changes how one can run their offense. Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley discussed this a few weeks ago, describing how his willingness to be aggressive on fourth downs opens up the playbook so much more on every other down. This allows the coaches to be more diverse in their playcalling and the players to play more loose and fast. Naturally, this is one of Staley’s core values and it took him months to instill this within the organization and it might not be something Hafley can drill into his team in a week. Regardless, this is the final game of the season and BC needs to lay it all on the line here.

Currently, BC is tied for second in the ACC in fourth-down attempts (22) and tied for fourth in fourth-down conversion percentage (54.5%); they’re also tied for 30th in attempts and 60th in conversion percentage in the FBS. Obviously, Phil Jurkovec will be massively important in BC’s efforts to convert these fourth downs. Since returning to the lineup, Jurkovec is four for six on fourth down conversions, of which one of his failures was the final throw against FSU. Jurkovec’s size makes him a valuable weapon in fourth and short situations, and even fourth and medium thanks to his running ability. He was forced to run frequently thanks to Florida State’s lethal pass rush, but hopefully this week Jurkovec can execute more designed runs (and learn to properly slide without putting himself in harm’s way).