Crazy Eight for Commodores?
By Matt Smith
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The Commodores have won five straight, including last week’s 41-18 rout of Tennessee, and are on the verge of their first eight-win season since 1982.
Vanderbilt at Wake Forest
Saturday, 3:30 ET/2:30 CT
TV: ESPNU (Anish Shroff, Dan Hawkins)
Bowl eligibility will be on the line on Saturday when Wake Forest (5-6, 3-5 ACC) welcomes Vanderbilt (7-4, 5-3 SEC) to Winston-Salem for the third straight season finale between the two academically prestigious universities. The Commodores have won five straight, including last week’s 41-18 rout of rival Tennessee, and are on the verge of their first eight-win season since 1982. The Demon Deacons have been unable to capitalize in their first two chances at becoming bowl-eligible in blowout losses to N.C. State and Notre Dame, and now face a do-or-die game if they hope to return to the postseason for the second consecutive season. Vanderbilt won last year’s meeting, also at BB&T Field, 41-7, to get itself to a bowl game. Wake Forest will be hoping to return the favor this season. Let’s look at five questions for the newest of the annual SEC-ACC Thanksgiving weekend clashes.
1. Can Wake Forest do anything offensively?
To say the Deacons are offensively challenged is an understatement. The statistics aren’t pretty: 111th in rushing offense, 117th in total offense, 3.0 yards per carry, 8.2 punts per game....The list goes on and on. There’s not a lot of shame in being shut out by Notre Dame, but failing to reach 20 points in five of the past six games is a sign of just how inept this unit has been. Wake Forest has started four different left tackles to this point, and now must face a Vanderbilt defense that loves to bring pressure in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s aggressive scheme. Tennessee’s elite offensive line has allowed just seven sacks in 11 games, but the Commodores dropped Tyler Bray twice last week. Vanderbilt will get to Deacons quarterback Tanner Price, regardless of whether four, five or six are rushing, but Price is elusive enough to extend plays. That is Wake Forest’s only hope. Sustained drives simply aren’t happening. Price must be able to buy time and create a number of “chunk” plays.
2. Will Jordan Matthews stay hot?
Other than against Clemson, a game in which the Deacons allowed 433 yards passing and five touchdowns, Wake Forest hasn’t faced a wide receiver at the level of Matthews. The junior has gone over 100 yards in three of the past four games and has caught a touchdown in his past three outings, and should be an All-SEC honoree as awards begin to come out in the coming weeks. The Deacons have a solid cornerback in fifth-year senior Chibuikem Okoro, and Vanderbilt hasn’t gotten enough production behind Matthews and Chris Boyd to do what Clemson did with such a deep corps of pass catchers. Matthews is too good to contain for the entire afternoon, but the SEC’s second-leading receiver may not get the action he’s seen in the past few weeks. That will be more attributable to Vanderbilt’s ability to run the ball than Wake Forest’s pass defense.
3. Will Nikita Whitlock be a factor?
The bull in the middle of the Wake Forest defensive line has battled injuries for much of the season, starting only six games. The fourth-year junior is the anchor of the Deacons’ 3-4 scheme at nose guard, and while only 5’11”, is disruptive against both the run and the pass, with three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. Whitlock was a non-factor against Notre Dame, and still isn’t 100%, but could make some hay on Saturday against a Vanderbilt interior that is a bit beat up and could be forced to play regular starting left tackle Wesley Johnson at center if Joe Townsend is unable to play after suffering an injury late in the win over Tennessee. The Commodores’ ground game has shown tremendous growth this season, topping 200 yards in four of the past five games. They handled Tennessee’s mammoth nose tackle Daniel McCullers last week with little difficulty, but that was with Townsend at 100%. If Vanderbilt is successfully running between the tackle, it’s going to be a long day for the Deacons.
4. Could the Commodores have a letdown?
If I’ve heard Vanderbilt coach James Franklin emphasizing going 1-0 each week and not thinking about what lies ahead once, I’ve heard it 1,000 times. Call it cliché. Call it coachspeak. Call it whatever you want. The bottom line is it’s worked for the Commodores, who appeared left for dead at 1-3 after a 45-point loss to Georgia, but now have an opportunity to finish with the program’s best record in 30 years. With the euphoria that has come the past two weeks from becoming bowl-eligible in a 17-point comeback at Ole Miss and embarrassing rival Tennessee, it’s natural to think there could be letdown potential when the ‘Dores step back out of conference and play in front of just 30,000 or so fans in Winston-Salem. Even their bowl options are unlikely to improve with a win. The Deacons, on the other hand, desperately need the win. Never underestimate the effect of desperation.
5. Who wins the special teams battle?
Special teams play can often narrow a gap between two unequal teams, but on Saturday, it will simply be another advantage for Vanderbilt. Special teams coach Charles Bankins has taken a unit that struggled for much of the 2011 season and turned it into a weapon for the 2012 Commodores. Carey Spear set the school record for field goals in a season last week, and Richard Kent stands 11th in the nation and 3rd in the SEC with an average of almost 45 yards per punt. The return game has managed only one touchdown this year, but it’s been more consistent than in 2011, with freshman Brian Kimbrow returning kicks, and Matthews and Jonathan Krause sharing punt return duties. Wake Forest has been average at best on special teams, with no return touchdowns and just two field goals from beyond 40 yards in six attempts.
Bonus: Who wins?
Wake Forest will battle much more so than it did a week ago in South Bend, but it won’t be enough against one of the hottest teams in the country. An early lead for the Deacons will be quickly erased as Vanderbilt will come close to matching the 297 yards it gained on the ground 52 weeks ago against the Deacons. It won’t be quite as lopsided as 2011, but the Commodores will make a statement that even when they have little to play for, they’ll still bring their A-game. Vanderbilt 30, Wake Forest 13.