Following a 38-21 loss at the hands of NC State last week, Virginia football looks to get back in the win column against Wake Forest Saturday. This week’s match-up will be the first time the Cavaliers (1-2, 1-2 ACC) have faced the Demon Deacons (1-2, 0-2 ACC) since 2016 when Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s squad fell 27-20 after a late Wake Forest comeback. It still remains to be seen if Virginia starting sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong will be cleared to play after he entered concussion protocol against NC State.
Wake Forest welcomes Virginia to Winston-Salem after a bye week that followed a 66-14 blowout of in-state FCS foe Campbell. The Demon Deacons are certainly not the same 2019 squad that reached No. 19 in the AP Poll under quarterback Jamie Newman, but maintain their explosive offense from last year, averaging just over 40 points per game. In contrast, the Cavaliers have started games slowly on offense, having scored zero points in the first quarter across three games. For Virginia to return to their winning ways, it must stay sound offensively and keep pace with an electric Demon Deacon offense that is sure to give the sometimes disorganized Cavalier defense issues.
Players to watch:
Virginia outside linebackers junior Noah Taylor and senior Charles Snowden
The Cavaliers rely on the two standouts to create havoc at the line of scrimmage, leading to sacks and poor passes that can be intercepted. Against NC State, however, Virginia had zero sacks and allowed sophomore quarterback Devin Leary to get going early, making Taylor and Snowden relative non-factors in the game. This subsequently allowed for the Wolfpack’s running game to open up, as four NC State players rushed for a combined 179 yards and two touchdowns. Taylor and Snowden will have to bring pressure early and often to test a disciplined quarterback in sophomore Sam Hartman. If they can make Hartman uncomfortable in the pocket, Taylor and Snowden can stall the Demon Deacon offense with drive-killing sacks and prevent the passing game from complementing a potent Wake Forest rushing attack.
Wake Forest running backs sophomore Kenneth Walker III and junior Christian Beal-Smith
This season, the Demon Deacon offense has established a potent two-back system featuring Walker III and Beal-Smith. In just three games, the two have combined for 453 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.15 yards per rushing attempt. While Walker III and Beal-Smith aren’t the most explosive runners since they don’t break off 50- to 60-yard rushes often, the two have great vision in the backfield and find seams at the line of scrimmage to gain solid yards. This ability to slowly chip away at defenses will challenge a Virginia team that has struggled to get its feet under it early on. Look for Mendenhall and defensive coordinators Kelly Poppinga and Nick Howell to be aggressive on defense early, dialing up blitz packages to plug the Wake Forest run game.
Keys to the game:
Stifle the Demon Deacon rushing attack
The Cavaliers have allowed 316 rushing yards in their past two games, giving Clemson and NC State the chance to pad their early leads with particularly strong running in the second half. To give the Virginia offense a chance to keep pace with a high-scoring Wake Forest offense — especially with the Cavaliers’ uncertainty at the quarterback position — the Virginia defense will need to prevent Walker III and Beal-Smith from racking up big yards. After seeing the success of Clemson and NC State, the Demon Deacons will certainly try to pound the ball on the ground in an attempt to tire out the Cavaliers and force sloppy play, so for Virginia to see this game through and end up on top, they will have to stay focused and play physical for all four quarters.
Establish a disciplined passing game
In the first half of the NC State clash, Virginia allowed NC State to jump out to a 24-0 lead in part due to an inability to get its offense into a rhythm. The Cavaliers had 140 yards passing and one interception across the first two quarters as Armstrong struggled to make quick reads and connect with open receivers. While junior quarterback Lindell Stone made a solid effort when he relieved an injured Armstrong — hitting his first reads and scanning the field with poise — he struggled to muster the arm strength needed to make deeper throws, sometimes trying to do too much. Whether Stone or Armstrong start under center, either signal-caller must put the NC State loss behind him and focus on executing the offense in a controlled manner. Rather than making errant deep throws, Saturday’s quarterback must understand that the Cavalier offense succeeds through short-to-medium yardage plays and must trust the play-calling of offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
Kick-off at Truist Field is set for 4 p.m. Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.