After a 49-37 victory against Army last week, the Demon Deacons are primed for a competitive conference game with Duke this weekend.
As the Blue Devils travel to Groves Stadium to continue what has become a Wake Forest-dominated rivalry over the past decade, much of the pressure remains on the Demon Deacons and experienced head coach Jim Grobe to extend their 12-game winning streak against Duke.
Throughout the past few years, the disparity between the two squads has narrowed, and last season, Wake Forest escaped with just a one-point victory. “We tell our players all the time that if what you did yesterday looks good to you, then you haven’t done anything today, so the things we’ve done in the past don’t matter this Saturday,” Grobe said in his weekly press conference. “We’ll have a chance, but a lot of our games with Duke and others have gone down to the wire.”
After posting a 3-9 record in 2010, the Demon Deacons upset ACC powerhouse Florida State and went on to a six-win season in 2011, gaining greater recognition within the conference by earning five ACC wins. In 2012, Wake Forest has won three games against Liberty, North Carolina, and Army, suffering its only defeat to then-No. 5 Florida State.
The biggest question for the Demon Deacons this season, however, has been the quality of play in their offensive line. With only one returning starter—center Garrick Williams—Wake Forest placed much of the load on inexperienced linemen.
“We’re better but we’ll find out week to week,” Grove said. “I thought against the Army defense, we did good things, but can we do that against Duke? It’s going to be a great challenge for us Saturday. I think if we can get people blocked, we’ve got a couple backs who can carry the football.”
The Demon Deacon running game has been inconsistent so far this season. At Florida State, Wake Forest gained only 43 yards on the ground, but against Army, the rushing tandem of Deandre Martin and Josh Harris combined for 244 yards and four touchdowns.
“We simplified things a little bit, so I thought our offensive staff did a good job by giving our kids stuff they could handle,” Grove said about the rushing attack. “Certainly, the running backs ran [well], but they needed some blocking up front. We really haven’t had that early in the season, so it was nice to have that come around.”
Although the offensive line and rushing game has been unreliable, the Demons Deacons have one of the most effective quarterbacks in the FBS along with a strong set of skill players. Quarterback Tanner Price has registered 825 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions so far this season. Price averages 7.4 yards per attempt, a career high mostly due to the talent at the wide receiver position.
Price’s favorite target is veteran receiver Michael Campanaro, who has caught 36 passes for 421 yards. Campanaro and fellow wide receiver Brandon Terry have been the focal point of Wake Forest’s aerial game plan, combining for 70 percent of passing yardage. Campanaro has stood out and ranks fifth in the country with an average of nine receptions per game.
“I think Camp got overshadowed a bit [last year],” Grove said. “He’s a good football player. I think it helped him last Saturday to have the running game go as good as it did. Camp can’t do it by himself. Hopefully, he’ll continue to have good games. I think if he does that means everyone else is doing pretty good.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Demon Deacons have been missing the interior presence of nose tackle Nikita Whitlock who suffered a high-ankle sprain earlier this season. Whitlock may play on Saturday against Duke, despite not practicing for the majority of the week.
Behind the defensive line, Wake Forest boasts a veteran linebacking core led by outside linebacker Justin Jackson, who recorded eleven tackles against Army, and a talented secondary.
So far though, the Demon Deacons have encountered issues on the defensive side of the ball, allowing an average of 33.3 points per game.
Despite the defensive inconsistency, Wake Forest will still be a stiff test for the Blue Devils.
“You have to give credit to their playmakers for making critical plays late in the game,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They take care of the football. They play the kicking game well. They do a lot of the little things right, and they’ve done that for quite some time, and that will win a lot of games for you. They’ve obviously done that better than we have to this point.”
Despite their rivalry winning streak, the Demon Deacons also understand the importance of treading with caution this week as they face a Duke team that has won two games in a row.
“I think this is the best Duke team we faced so far,” said Grobe. “Coach Cutcliffe has done a great job. They’re playing good on both sides of the ball—both defensively and offensively. This is a big challenge for us.”