Demon Deacons Face A Wildly Unpredictable Louisville Team

Demon Deacons Face Louisville

As Wake Forest continues to chart a path toward potentially unprecedented success, the next stop on the journey is a road game in Kentucky where the Demon Deacons face a wildly unpredictable Louisville team.

Wake Forest heads into Cardinal Stadium Saturday at 6-1 overall, 2-1 in ACC play, and most notably, the tenth-ranked team in the country. This will be the last time they leave the state of North Carolina for the remainder of the season.

The Up And Down Cardinals

They are preparing to face a Louisville quarterback who was expected to be one of the best in the conference, if not the entire country before the season started. But Malik Cunningham has been as up and down as the 4-3 Cardinals, (2-3 in conference play). He is throwing at a 60% completion rate, which is 2-4% behind each of the previous three years. Cunningham has five touchdown passes but has also thrown four interceptions. He has rushed for another five hundred yards with nine touchdowns.

Which version of Cunningham you get varies from week to week. There is the one who managed only 122 passing yards last week in the win over Pitt while completing just 46% of his passes. Or there is the one who threw for 243 yards, passed for a touchdown, and ran for another 127 yards, and two more scores in the loss to Florida State last month. His personal stats are trending down in the wins and up in the losses. Don’t bother looking for connectivity.

Malik Cunningham

Still, it means Wake is going to face a dual-threat quarterback for the first time in a few weeks. Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson described the challenges of facing Cunningham. “He is one of the most gifted, talented players in the league,” he said earlier this week. “He has really improved on reading plays. When he sets his feet and is able to get through a progression, this guy puts the ball on the money.”

Demon Deacons defensive lineman Dion Bergan, Jr. talked about how hard it is to contain a quarterback like Cunningham. “The biggest emphasis is having rush lane integrity,” he said. “Our inside guys can’t get too caught up in trying to work moves inside and out.” Staying at home in your lane is not easy when watching someone like Cunningham keep plays alive with his feet. Defensive back Chelen Garnes said fundamentals like wrapping up Cunningham when he is on the loose are a big emphasis at practice this week. “He can make you miss. Also, he can run past you. So it is once you get there, being able to make the play as well.”

Sam Hartman

Louisville has its own challenges on defense. The Cardinals are 49th in the country in total defense, giving up 356 yards per game. But now they will be facing one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Sam Hartman. As he heads towards a season for the history books, Hartman is tied for fifth in the country in passing touchdowns with 21. He is ahead of more celebrated names like Bryce Young, Caleb Williams, and Hendon Hooker.

When Louisville faced a similarly skilled quarterback in week one of the season, Syracuse’s Scott Shrader hit them for 236 yards passing, 94 yards rushing, and three total touchdowns. Hartman is not the running threat that Shrader is, but he is averaging just under 300 yards per game passing. At his current rate of touchdown throws per game, Hartman will break Tajh Boyd’s ACC record for a career by the end of the regular season.

Wake’s Offense

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield said of Hartman, “I think he’s got to be right now playing the best of anybody in our conference.” Satterfield said Hartman’s ability to work with elite-level receivers allows him to just need to put the pass near them, and they will go get it. “He’s a big-time competitor. Great accuracy and full command of their offense. I think that’s what makes him so good.”

Satterfield said one thing that makes Wake Forest tougher to beat than other teams is the fundamentals. “It’s Coach Clawson’s teams. They don’t beat themselves. They don’t turn the football over.” In fact, Wake is tied as the sixth-best team in the country with only five turnovers lost the entire season.

There has been much discussion in the last week as to whether Wake is getting the national attention it deserves, and rightfully so. Clawson acknowledged this week that his team is “Overall, probably not,” getting its due. And while he is trying to promote the performances of his players, and the team overall, he acknowledges that any hiccup within the journey alters the upside of the future. “We were ranked here a year ago and then when we got that ranking what did we do,” he asked rhetorically. “You can’t win five games in a row [at one time]. You’ve just got to win the next one.”

He didn’t need to remind his team what is at stake in the next one. “We are playing teams starting this week that we know are good. Louisville’s beaten us two out of the last three years.”

There is a mix of tending to business and living in the moment of accomplishment. Clawson said after the Boston College win, he made sure his players enjoyed what they had done. “After the game, in the locker room, I made a big deal about it. ‘Guys, we just got our sixth win. We’re going to a bowl. Don’t ever take this for granted.'”

The path to historic heights kicks into high gear this Saturday…for Hartman, for Clawson, and for the Wake Forest football program.

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