Jim Grobe's 10-year run in Winston-Salem appeared to be returning to mediocrity in '09 and '10 after posting 28 wins in a three-year span that included an ACC Championship and a trip to the '06 Orange Bowl. The Demon Deacons delivered a 5-7 record in '09 before winning just one conference game and three overall last season in limping to a 3-9 (1-7 ACC) record.
But Wake Forest's slide was due to a break in Grobe's preferred system of relying on upperclassmen to run his schemes with precision. The Demon Deacons were forced to count on young and inexperienced players after recruiting misses, injuries and attrition arrived in a perfect storm. The silver lining, of course, was that the 2011 campaign was ripe for a turnaround with 17 returning starters and 17 fourth- and fifth-year players in the starting lineup. Grobe's 11th squad has capitalized on that opportunity with a 5-2 (4-1 ACC) record and currently represent Clemson's lone remaining obstacle in winning the ACC Atlantic Division crown.
Wake Forest has paired a strong passing offense (285.0 ypg, 24th nationally) with a steady defense (352.6 ypg, 40th), while also committing just five turnovers on the season (T-2nd nationally).
"We've had some battles with North Carolina, no question about it. Just like with our NC State and Duke games, a lot of the players on their teams are North Carolina kids. A lot of our players have played against those guys in high school, so there are some rivalries that will be renewed from high school days. That makes it a little bit more interesting." – Grobe on playing the in-state schools
"Well, I was born in Chapel Hill, so most of my family have always been die-hard Tar Heel fans. It's a great university with great campus life and a great football program. We know it's going to be a tough game, and we know that we're going to have to play at our best to beat North Carolina because of all their talent. We have to know our assignments and know what we have to do in order to get a win." – WFU left tackle Dennis Godfrey
Matchups to Watch
WFU's Passing Attack vs. UNC's Pass Defense
Wake Forest trailed Duke last Saturday, 23-17, with seven minutes remaining and the Demon Deacons standing on their on 34-yard-line. But in what has become a steady storyline throughout the course of the season, sophomore quarterback Tanner Price connected with junior wide receiver Chris Givens for a 66-yard touchdown pass with 6:52 left in regulation in what proved to be the winning score.
After being forced into action as a true freshman in '10, Price has responded this season by completing 135 of his 220 passes for 1,821 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions.
"I'm not surprised that Tanner is playing well because I know he's capable of that, but I think he's capable of playing better," Grobe said on Tuesday. "He's going to have some ups and downs because he's a young guy. He's a young quarterback that's growing, but I couldn't be happier with him now. I think he's got some room for improvement, but that's a good thing, and I think he knows that too."
Givens has been Price's primary beneficiary, hauling in 46 catches for 886 yards and eight touchdowns, while Michael Campanaro (29 catches, 346 yards) and Danny Dembry (26 catches, 337 yards, TD) round out a robust aerial assault.
Adding to the lethal formula is the fact that Campanaro has thrown for as many touchdowns as he has caught (2) in trick play opportunities.
North Carolina counters with a much-maligned pass defense that ranks 101st nationally (263.4 ypg, 11th ACC) and 90th in pass efficiency defense (138.5, 11th ACC). The Tar Heels have been content in allowing opponents underneath routes to prevent big plays down the field, but that strategy has yielded uneven results at best.
"They run a lot of off-front and a lot of their base defense," Godfrey said. "They like to blitz on second and third down, so we're making sure to prepare for that. We want to create some hot routes for Tanner and make sure that he's well protected. We've been working on some one-on-one pass rushing in practice this week to get ready for that."
UNC head coach Everett Withers has stressed the importance of a stifling run defense to make opponents one-dimensional offensively, but Wake Forest has already taken care of that aspect for the Tar Heels. The Demon Deacons rank 109th nationally in rushing offense ( 101.6, ypg, 11th ACC) and hold down the cellar spot in league games with a 96.4-rushing-yards-per-game average.
The UNC coaching staff will need to have the proper adjustments in place prior to kickoff – Wake Forest has received the ball and scored first in each of its seven games this season.
UNC's Bryn Renner vs. WFU's Pass Defense
Running back Gio Bernard has served as North Carolina's offensive sparkplug this season and there's no reason to expect offensive coordinator John Shoop to deviate from that game plan on Saturday. But Bernard will run directly into the strength of Wake Forest's defense as the Deacons are allowing 121.6 yards per game (36th nationally, 4th ACC).
If co-defensive coordinators Tim Billings and Brian Knorr are successful in limiting UNC's effectiveness on the ground, quarterback Bryn Renner will have to move his offense with the passing game. And while the red-shirt sophomore's statistics have been impressive – 147-of-203 passing, 1,857 yards, 16 TD, 9 INT – his decision-making ability has often come into question. Renner has taken late-game sacks in two conference games that have killed UNC's chances for comebacks and there has been no common theme in his interceptions. He has failed to account for safety help over the top, forced the ball into tight coverage, underthrown his receiver and had two balls tipped, all of which suggests his mistakes revolve more around his learning curve than anything else.
But Renner is not willing to blame his lack of significant experience for his poor decisions, acknowledging that his turnovers were throws and fumbles that a quarterback couldn't make at any age.
"I think it's a little bit of both," Renner said. "I'm already eight games in, so learning is going to keep evolving… I definitely need to make quicker reads and just learn from the mistakes that I've made and hopefully I can do that this week."
The Demon Deacons rank 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense (114.9), but it's not because of their ability to put pressure on the quarterback (1.14 sacks per game, 105th). Wake Forest has seven interceptions on the season and freshman cornerback Merrill Noel has a NCAA-best 16 pass breakups.
Renner will have to tighten up his performance and avoid any game-crippling mistakes against an opponent that possesses a plus-0.71 turnover margin (21st).