Conference expansion really hurt the Virginia-Wake Forest series. It doesn’t even feel like an ACC game this week in some ways. That can make the picks more difficult because there isn’t as much familiarity with an opponent.
UVA has not played Wake since the 2012 season. In fact, after playing every year from 1980-2003, these two teams have squared off only four times in the next 13 seasons. The Cavaliers haven’t even been to WFU since 2008. The good news for the Hoos? They’re 15-2 all-time at BB&T field. The bad news? They lost there in 2008 and the Demon Deacons currently have a two-game winning streak going in the series.
That 2008 game came two recruiting classes ago, though. So what do the current versions look like against each other. Wake Forest presents an aggressive defense that produces lots of tackles for loss, sacks, and turnovers … and also gives up a lot of big plays the other way. Those big plays allowed often come in the passing game where the Deacs allow 244.9 yards per game.
The Cavaliers can test that theory with a pass-first offense behind quarterback Kurt Benkert. They’ve scored 12 touchdowns this season in six plays or less, which included a pair of long scores on passes of 74 and 82 yards. For that to unfold this week, they’ll need to keep Benkert from feeling uncomfortable against the Deacs’ pressure.
On the flipside, Wake Forest likes to run the ball with a lot of players getting touches. That includes six players with at least 18 carries on the season with quarterback John Wolford leading the way in touchdowns. He has 78 carries for 362 yards and 5 TDs. UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week that the run fronts on defense have been more consistent than pass defense for the Cavaliers so continuing that trend could be important this week.
Those are just a couple of the head-to-head matchups in this game, but there appear to be some favorable things on paper for the Hoos. Will that equal the second road win of the season after a 17-game drought away from Charlottesville before Mendenhall arrived? Time will tell.
It’s time for the picks.
Virginia can win if … it takes advantage of big play opportunities. Wake Forest plays aggressively on defense, which leads to big plays both ways. The Demon Deacons have two of the top 11 tackles for loss players in the nation and are tied for 27th nationally with 2.75 sacks per game. On the other hand, they’ve also given up 19 plays of 30 yards or more (tied for 75th). If UVA can buy enough time to get plays open downfield, it could have a big day offensively.
Virginia can lose if … turnovers remain an issue. UVA has had a turnover in every game since Taft was President – or something like that – and it continues to cause problems. Last week in the upset bid against No. 5 Louisville, Kurt Benkert had two interceptions. One ended a potential scoring drive and the other set up the Cards for a touchdown. That’s a potential 14-point swing in a game that went to the wire. Wake Forest comes into this game tied for 24th nationally in turnover margin at +5 for the season. The Hoos, meanwhile, are tied for 59th at an even 0 for the season.
And the winner is …
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: I’m going to call this a culture test game. Virginia followed up a disappointing loss to Pitt and a struggle with North Carolina with a good effort against Louisville. It’s easy to get up emotionally with solid focus and concentration for a Heisman candidate and a top 10 team at home, though. It’s much tougher to get the same energy on the road at Wake Forest, a team you haven’t even played since 2012. Bronco Mendenhall has touted culture, will before skill, and the like but it is still early in his tenure. Will the Wahoos have the needed focus and execution levels to get a road win again? I think so, but in a struggle. VIRGINIA 30, WAKE FOREST 22. Season to date: 5-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: This Virginia team could have packed it in following a lackluster performance against UNC with No. 5 Louisville coming to Scott Stadium. Instead the Cavaliers responded with arguably its best performance of the season despite the loss. I think the players are confident and motivated, and I think last Saturday’s performance propels the Cavaliers to a win at Wake Forest. VIRGINIA 28, WAKE FOREST 17. Season to date: 5-3.
Sabre Analyst Greg Waters: Virginia has a great chance to collect its second road win of the season this week in Winston-Salem. Wake has a solid run defense but is suspect against the pass, which plays to the Hoos’ strengths. Wake is another, run-pass option offensive team that is balanced (47/53 run/pass ratio) but not nearly as productive as the recent opponents. WFU goes as its QB John Wolford goes. Look for a similar approach to Wolford as we saw against Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, keeping the Deacs’ trigger man in the pocket and forcing him to beat the UVA defense with his arm and not his legs. I say they will as the defense holds Wake to field goals and makes two picks. VIRGINIA 24, WAKE FOREST 16. Season to date: 4-4.
Sabre Analyst Ahmad Hawkins (listen to The Ball Hawk Show podcast here): The loss to Louisville was heartbreaking, yet it showed the Cavaliers can play at a high level. The offense will generate explosive plays early in the game and the defense will help secure the lead with extra possessions (stops and turnovers). The offense will also end the turnover streak and finally play a clean and efficient game. VIRGINIA 28, WAKE FOREST 10. Season to date: 3-5.
What about you? Who wins?