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OAYP: UNC at Wake Forest Preview

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Breaking down the biggest keys to North Carolina at Wake Forest through the lens of the OAYP advanced metric.

North Carolina will play a non-conference game this week at Wake Forest. This is silly in that both of these teams play in the ACC, but not as silly as two ACC teams that are 45 minutes away from one another only playing once every six years.

In any case, it’s an interesting matchup, even if it doesn’t factor into the league’s overall outlook.

Despite each of them being picked second to last at the ACC Kickoff, both teams enter the contest unbeaten, 2-0, with some impressive wins.

Obviously, on paper, UNC’s victories over South Carolina and Miami are more impressive than Wake’s, and they probably are as a whole, but don’t sleep on the Demon Deacons’ showing in the opener against Utah State. While both Miami and South Carolina were top 30 OAYP teams in 2018, Utah State actually finished higher than both of them, thanks in large part to what was a top 10 OAYP defense that Jamie Newman just shredded.

On the other side, Mack Brown has twice now found some fourth quarter magic, to pull off consecutive come-from-behind upsets -- something the Tar Heels struggled mightily with a season ago.

In spite of those low preseason expectations, both of these programs appear poised to make some noise in the ACC this season. I, for one, am not as surprised as many probably are by Wake Forest’s early success, but I’ll be the first to admit that North Carolina’s caught me off guard.

It may not factor into the conference standings, but this game will nonetheless be a good barometer for how each of them stack up going forward.

Below is the projected starting offense for Wake Forest and defense for UNC, accompanied by their marginal OAYP scores. If you’re not yet acquainted with the new metric, the tl;dr of the individual player scores is best boiled down to something like WAR, in baseball. Both value and efficiency are taken into account, and while it doesn’t exactly correlate to wins or points, necessarily, it does display each player’s said value and efficiency relative to the positional mean. The basic rule of thumb we’ve been using is: below -1.0 is a red flag, between -1.0 and 0 is below average, between 0 and 0.5 is above average, between 0.5-1.0 is roughly ‘second tier’, greater than 1.0 is a bonafide superstar, and 2.0 or higher might as well be a superhero.

Let’s break down the single most important factor that will decide who wins that facet of the game, and then we’ll do the same for North Carolina’s offense versus Wake’s defense. OAYP’s projected margin of victory can also be found at the bottom.

Deciding Factor: The Passing Game

After two consecutive games averaging at least 8.5 yards per attempt with 3:0 touchdown to interception ratios, Jamie Newman has leapt up to the #2 spot in OAYP’s ACC quarterback rankings, only behind Trevor Lawrence. Albeit on a small sample size, two games in, the junior ranks in the national top 25 in yards per attempt, and the top 15 in passer rating, touchdowns, and completion percentage. Suffice it to say, Dave Clawson chose well between Newman and Sam Hartman.

He’s not doing it by himself, though. Jack Freudenthal’s continued success is not a surprise, having entered the season as the #1 OAYP tight end in the ACC. A former walk-on, Jack Freudenthal emerged as a reliable safety valve for Wake Forest last season. He had big shoes to fill as Cam Serigne’s replacement, and while he wasn’t as productive as his predecessor, he was even more efficient. Serigne averaged 12.6 yards per reception during his senior season with a 20.5% touchdown rate. In 2018, Freudenthal went for 13.7 yards per catch with a 26.7% touchdown rate. He’s yet to have any monster performances, ranking 6th and 5th, respectively, in the conference in single game TE OAYP, so far, but he’s as steady as ever, with four catches for 31 yards against Utah State and three for 45 versus Rice.

Scotty Washington, on the other hand, has been dominant. Entering the year as OAYP’s #9 ACC receiver, he has since jumped up into the top five, and crossed that 1.0 threshold to join the ranks of the elite, with 204 yards and three scores on just eleven grabs in 2019. And Sage Surratt is right there with him. The sophomore, while not as efficient as Washington, has been nearly as productive, totaling 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 receptions.

Now, the Demon Deacons will be without Kendall Hinton, who left the game against Rice with a hamstring injury, but there shouldn’t be any overwhelming cause for concern. Steven Claude went for 70 yards on six catches against Utah State, and Dave Clawson is yet to even tap into his blue chip freshman duo of Donovan Greene and Nolan Groulx.

On the flipside, North Carolina will be without star cornerback Patrice Rene, who is expected to miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. That leaves the Heels with a likely trio of Greg Ross, DJ Ford, and Trey Morrison, the latter of whom is the only returning qualifier, per OAYP’s minimum thresholds. Yet, even though OAYP can’t tell us a ton, with great certainty, about the two former, both Ross and Ford’s single game scores ranked in the top seven in week one, with Ross earning a spot on the team of the week.

Still, especially with Rene out, the safety pairing of Myles Dorn and Myles Wolfolk will have to step up big. Though Dorn is currently rated as the better of the two, Wolfolk played out of his mind against South Carolina, tallying a pair of interceptions. Newman is yet to throw a pick this season, but these two are dangerous. Any mistakes are at severe risk of going the other way.

All told, particularly given the loss of Rene, Wake Forest’s pass catching talent ought to be able to overwhelm UNC’s relatively inexperienced cornerbacks. It may be a challenge to get behind those safeties, but Newman is perfectly content to work the short to intermediate areas of the field and let his guys pick up those YAC for him. The thing is, pass defense isn’t just a secondary effort -- it’s a team thing. Even with an upper echelon tackle like Justin Herron, the pass protection has left a little something to be desired, thus far. If anyone knows how to find cruel, creative ways of attacking opposing passers, it’s Jay Bateman. He’s been really aggressive so far when other teams get knocked off schedule, and UNC’s sack rate has jumped from 6.5% on standard downs to 13.3% on passing downs as a result, so it will obviously be important to avoid falling behind the sticks.

Deciding Factor: Phil Longo

Shout out to Phil Longo. I was really curious/nervous to see how he would adapt his pass-happy offense from Ole Miss to the personnel he inherited in Chapel Hill. Suffice it to say, he has done so effectively.

While on the one hand he had a true freshman quarterback and a less-than-stellar, somewhat unproven receiving corps, he also had three solid to above average running backs and a solid offensive line. Logic would dictate that he run the ball, run it again, then do it some more, and boy, did he ever.

Against a talented South Carolina front seven, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams combined for 179 rushing yards on 34 rushes, and Antonio Williams added another 53 yards on four, two of which went for 20+ yards. All told, UNC went to the ground 52 times against the Gamecocks, which, in turn, helped the passing game to be more efficient. The raw totals didn’t look like some of Longo’s high flying passing attacks at his old school, but over 10 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and no picks always looks good, whether it’s on 54 attempts, or 24 attempts,.

Even last week, though the rushing attack was not as efficient against a Miami front that could be among the nation’s best, he stayed committed, going to the ground 36 times, while once again limiting Howell to 25 attempts.

Wake Forest’s run defense has been solid so far, but, frankly, it’s just not the caliber of Miami’s. And, to some degree, it’s not even the efficacy of the rushing attack that’s important, as much as the consistent presence of it. Obviously, consistent success is preferable to the alternative, but the mere threat of it can go a long way in helping out Howell.

PROJECTED MARGIN OF VICTORY: Wake Forest by 6.86

OAYP likes Dave Clawson’s squad a little more than Vegas does going into this one, but North Carolina has been the toughest team for it to figure out, so far. The formula is 7-3 against the spread right now (I’ve only been doing games between P5 teams in our coverage area), and two of those three losses have come at the hands of Mack Brown and company (the other was Texas A&M’s backdoor against Clemson on that meaningless late touchdown). So, while I’ve been really happy with its performance in its debut season, I have to admit that it just may not have a good handle on the Tar Heels yet.

Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agree. UNC should have its fair share of success in the run game as long as Longo stays committed to it, but Wake still has a bonafide stud at every level of the defense -- from Carlos Basham to Justin Strnad to Essang Bassey -- who should be able to make enough plays if Jamie Newman and that offense are cooking like they should.

It’s a shame that the injury bug bit the Heels so hard last week, as both Rene and center Nick Polino would have been of particular import in this one, but without them, the matchup advantages for Wake Forest should be too much to overcome.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP