Stanford @ Wake Forest – September 12
Last Year: @ Wake Forest 30, Mississippi 28 or @Wake Forest 23, Vanderbilt 10 or @TCU 31, Stanford 14
These teams have never met before, and Wake Forest hasn't played a Pac-10 opponent since 2002, so bear with me. In fact, Stanford last played a current ACC opponent in 2002, though Boston College was in the Big East at the time. Other than the visit to Beantown, Stanford's only East Coast trip in the last ten years was the 2005 season opener, a 41-38 victory over Navy.
So while there was no contest between these teams last year, let alone anyone from the same region of the country, both teams did face opponents of similar profiles in their out-of-conference schedules. For the Cardinal, the non-creampuff, non-Notre Dame, non-Pac-10 opponent of 2008 was TCU, whom the Card lost to 31-14, getting outrushed 233 to 71. (In retrospect, did TCU ever have a good rush defense. No one else held the Cardinal under 110 yards for the season.) For Wake Forest, last year's non-Baylor, (weird series to have, but okay), non-Navy out-of-conference opponents were Mississippi and Vanderbilt, both of whom the Demon Deacons defeated. A 41-yard field goal from All-World kicker Sam Swank (thankfully for Stanford, he's graduated) gave the Deacons the victory over Mississippi, while the November bowl-clinching win over Vanderbilt came on the back of the D, which held the Commodores to 259 yards. Vanderbilt and Mississippi are two resurgent programs in the SEC, much like Stanford, and Wake Forest is the mid-major (smallest enrollment, smallest fan base, most underrated) of the ACC, like TCU, so there you have it. (At The Bootleg, we truly go the extra mile.)
Forced comparisons aside, this is the bellwether game of Stanford's season, in my opinion. As last year demonstrates (as do wins over Vanderbilt, Syracuse and Connecticut the two seasons prior), Wake Forest finds a way to win these out-of-conference games against good-but-not-great opponents. The Deacons have gone 8-5, 9-4 and 11-3 the last three seasons, and if Stanford wants to start replicating those records, it needs to start winning these types of games. Whether it was in losses against TCU the last two years or against Notre Dame the last seven, the Card have not done well whatsoever against fringe top-25 teams out-of-conference. (Hey South Bend: Zing!) If Stanford hopes to finish this season nationally respected as a team on the verge of the Top 25, this is simply a game it needs to win.
Stat Battle: Wake Forest O vs. Stanford D
Stats listed opponent offense (conference rank), Stanford defense (Pac-10 rank). All stats conference-only. The first six 2008 stats are good and last three stats bad for an offense, so the larger the first six stats are, the better the offensive rank and the worse the defense rank, and vice versa for the final three stats. There are 12 teams in the ACC.
Points Per Game: 16.6 (10), 28.9 (8)
Yards Per Game: 279 (11), 392 (8)
Rushing Yards Per Game: 113 (8), 163 (7)
Yards Per Carry: 2.8 (12), 4.7 (8)
Passing Yards Per Game: 167 (10), 229 (9)
Completion Percentage: 57.1% (4), 60.4% (8)
Yards Per Point: 16.8 (10), 13.6 (6)
Turnovers: 8 (2), 19 (6)
Sacks: 21 (9), 24 (4)
Returning Starters: 9 (Pac-10 Avg: 7.4), 8 (Pac-10 Avg: 6.4)
Predicted Points Per Game: 29, TBA
These numbers are just ripe with potential for analysis. First, Wake's offense stunk last year. In the ACC, its point totals went 12, 12, 0, 10, overtime game against Duke, 28, 17, 21. Maybe the ACC is just amazing at defense. For Wake's 300 yards per game allowed to rank sixth in the conference is unreal – it'd be second to USC in the Pac-10 and No. 1 by over 50 yards in the Big 12. Wake did score 41, 30, 12 and 23 in its out-of-conference games, so maybe there's something to the strong ACC defense theory. Still, the 3.1 yards per carry and 30 sacks allowed speak to a weak offensive line in 2008.
Then there's the defense, where Wake is amazing, though, again, maybe the ACC's offenses were just exceptionally poor. You can see the rush D was excellent and the pass D merely very good, so teams passed on the Deacons a whole lot. As our defensive preview will detail, Wake Forest's back seven figures to suffer one of the biggest drop-offs in the country, but the Deacons' game plan against the Card will surely be the same as their modus operandi throughout 2008: stop the run and force the opposing quarterback to win the game. For the Deacons, that's not a bad strategy at all, as Stanford will be trotting out a freshman quarterback on the road in the second start of his career. For Andrew Luck, welcome to the big time. I've laid out the case for why I consider this Stanford's biggest game of the year. Here's where legends are forged.
Second Down: Backfield
Riley Skinner is the prototypical scrappy quarterback who may lack in raw talent but unfailingly wills his team to victory. Think Craig Krenzel, Ohio State's starting quarterback in 2002. Think Rudy, think Hoosiers. Skinner's the guy movies like that are made about, a guy the locals will be talking about for the decades to come. Some nothing two-star recruit, Skinner separated his shoulder and threw three interceptions in the 2007 season opener, and added six more picks by midseason. But like all movie stars do, Skinner rallied, merely finishing the season with an NCAA-best 72 percent accuracy as Wake won its last three games by double digits. Despite dropping to "only" 64 percent accuracy last season, with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, Skinner was All-ACC Honorable Mention, and has now completed an incredible 69 percent of his passes in Winston-Salem. Stanford's D Line could be a factor – Skinner was sacked 30 times last year and has easily obscurable vision at just 6-foot-1 – but if the contest is close late, it's hard to bet against the golden boy senior quarterback at home.
Tailback will see a two-man platoon. Option 1A is former ACC Rookie of the Year Josh Adams, a four-star type with 1,400 career yards to his name. Option 1B is Brandon Pendergrass, who led the Deacons with 528 rushing yards, five touchdowns and a 3.5 per-carry average last season. Adams, a junior, and Pendergrass, a former two/three-star sophomore, combined for 35 catches last year, and I'd look for the Deacons to frequently throw to their backs in the flats on Sept. 12, which moves the ball away from Stanford's stout line and instead tests the Card's greener linebackers. The backfield is among the ACC's best.
Note: All unit ratings are on a five-point scale, with 1 the worst and 5 the best. Units are rated relative to an average BCS conference team, with a team full of one a last-place team, a team full of threes a .500 squad, and a team full of fives a conference favorite and national title contender.
Third Down: Line
Wake also looks very good on the line, where all five starters and four of the second-stringers return. The 119 returning career starts are second-most in the NCAA at a position that rewards experience more than any. The bad news for the Deacons, however, is that none of the linemen were all that highly recruited out of high school, and thus far, the rankings have held up. None have received any All-Conference recognition despite the 119 combined starts, and Wake Forest's rushing averages have headed consistently in the wrong direction the last four years: from 4.1 yards per carry to 3.9 to 3.4 to last year's 3.1 average. Given the experience, I still expect the Deacons to return to their 2002-2004 numbers of 4.3 or 4.4 yards per carry, which would have ranked third in last year's ACC. So don't expect a dominant line like Stanford's last year, but do expect a line greater than the sum of its parts and, like the man under center himself, perhaps not Heisman-worthy, but more than solid enough to get the job done.
Fourth Down: Receivers
Here we see the first chink of many in the Deacons' armor. Nine starters return on Wake's offense, but the two who don't are departing receivers DJ Boldin and Chip Brinkman. Marshall Williams looks solid at one spot – his 390 receiving yards were the team's second-best last year and came despite only two starts. At the other position, Jordan Williams has appeared in 15 games, but has only 144 yards to his name. Rounding out the corps is tight end Ben Wooster, who was responsible for three touchdowns and over 200 receiving yards last year. Recruiting services never like Wake's guys, and the receiving corps is no different – yet the Deacons are 28-12 over the last three seasons, so, again, take those rankings with a grain of salt. This group is the clear weak point of the Deacons' offense, but it still should be a middle-of-the-pack unit by BCS standards.
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