Being 3-1 four weeks into the season hardly seems like a downward trend for Wake Forest. But when you look at how the loss happened, who the opponent was, and the week-to-week issues it seems clear that the Demon Deacons are in need of some self-reflection during the bye week.
Wake Forest should be 4-0 right now. The schedule handed them an FCS opponent, a bottom-of-the-barrel Power 5 school, a decent but beatable Sun Belt team, and a conference opponent that likely finishes in the bottom fourth of the ACC.
The Stumbling Block That Is the Offense
So what went wrong? The list is not short. After the loss to Georgia Tech Saturday night at Allegacy Stadium, head coach Dave Clawson said his team was making the same mistakes week after week and not learning. If there was nothing else but that statement, the signs would be troubling enough. This is, after all, a veteran team. Sure, they don’t have the crazy number of combined starts per position group that last year’s squad had. But the snaps are there. The in-game experience is there.
So, Clawson did what coaches do. He put the onus on himself and his staff. “I’ll share with you what I shared with our football team,” he told the media after the game. “When a team keeps making the same mistakes over, and over, and over, and they’re not learning, that’s a sign of a team that’s not really well coached.”
The Deacs have a combined eight turnovers in the last two games. And they are not harmless turnovers. They too often lead to points on the board for the opponents. Down by 17 points at the half each of the last two weeks gives the misnomer that the defense is not doing its job. And sure, there are fixes needed on defense. But far too many of those deficits are being created by mistakes on the offensive side of the ball.
The place everyone is going to start, fairly or not, is at the quarterback spot. This is Mitch Griffis’ offense to run, and it is not being run well. Yeah, he has nearly 1,000 yards throwing already. But he is doing so at a paltry 59% completion rate and has six interceptions to just nine touchdown passes. And that doesn’t include the fumbles, (one lost at Old Dominion turned into a scoop and score for the Monarchs), and the decision-making that is far too bold for what he can actually pull off right now.
“Right now, we’re just beating ourselves. We’re not giving ourselves a chance,” Clawson said Saturday night.
There was no more glaring case than Wake’s final drive of the game. Down 23-16 in the final four minutes of the game, the Deacs had driven from their own 35-yard line to the GA Tech 21-yard line. On a first and 10…a first and 10…Griffis got flushed out of the pocket, rolled to his right, and tried to thread the pass between two receivers to Wesley Grimes at the 11-yard line. Grimes was not open. The pass was not a good one and the decision was worse. The pass was intercepted.
GA Tech drove the length of the field for the score that put the game away for good. And Wake was left asking itself how this was happening. It turns out it’s not that complicated. “It’s first down. Throw it away,” Clawson said when asked about that specific play. “Cut your loss.” He said he appreciated Griffis’ competitiveness, but there are plays you just don’t try to force.
The Clock in Your Head
Griffis’ “pocket presence” is an issue. He is taking a beating back there, at times because the line isn’t holding up well enough, and more so to the point, that his decision-making is too slow. Clawson called his internal clock something that has been a four-week problem and needs to speed up. We spent so much time looking at analytics as to how much time he had to get rid of the ball over the course of a game. But numbers can be very misleading. When a quarterback isn’t properly reading the chess board in front of him in live action, the analytics don’t matter.
Offensive lineman Michael Jurgens did the math after the game. “If we have 80 plays and each guy had four minuses (bad plays) throughout the game, and those are spread out across 44 different plays, then we’re not getting the job done over half the time.”
The offensive line for all of its “a lot of snaps, but not a lot of starts” level of experience has been hit-and-miss. Injuries, most notably to Spencer Clapp, have caused a significant amount of shifting of players and positions. Matt Gulbin and Devonte Gordon are moving around like allegedly interchangeable chess pieces. There are times over the last three weeks that the line has given Griffis all the time any quarterback can ask for, and times when the pocket has collapsed around him in the blink of an eye. Such is the world of college football and the players are not making the adjustments well enough four weeks into the season.
Griffis did what QB1’s do. He met with the media after the game to relive the horror of the night, something his predecessor did not always do after losses. “We didn’t finish drives and that’s on me,” he told the media. He was downtrodden after the win at Old Dominion because, as he put it, the team won despite his poor performance. So, you can imagine what he was like after the loss.
“I’m frustrated because I feel like I’ve let the team down.” He said he loves winning not for himself but because of what it does for his teammates. That sounds great. It is what you want a leader to say. But the personal learning curve on the field has to pick up the pace, post haste.
The defense has been a mixed bag. Mostly good play mixed in with some really, really bad play. GA Tech only needed 59 plays Saturday night (to 82 for Wake), to pull out the win. Part of that is Wake continuing to give up big chunk plays. The Yellowjackets had five plays of 30 yards or more on offense. Giving up the explosive plays was a concern of Clawson’s going all the way back to Spring camp.
Conversely, when your offense is turning the ball over as much as Wake’s is, it puts the defense in untenable positions.
What is the Focus Moving Forward?
Clawson was asked after the game about the big Georgia Tech plays. He tried to focus on it, but there was that other element sticking in his craw. “I think you have to go back and say, ‘Why did the explosive happen?’” But there was more. “I’m going nuts with the turnovers right now. Those are the five plays that I can’t get out of my head.”
Evaluating the game film and the plays is one thing. Running back Justice Ellison suggested there is a deeper level that his teammates need to find. “Everybody looks good when they’re not getting punched in the face,” he said. “Can you go down and can you pick others up? That’s the character of a man.” He went on to suggest that there needs to be greater attention to detail in practice. “The reason we go so hard at practice is because you’re teaching yourself to give it your all every single play.” He said the bye week needs to be spent getting, “Guys to buy into that.”
You have to wonder why they have not already. Self-reflection can be a rather humbling experience.