DeaconsIllustrated.com Associate Editor Ben Doster has been closely following Wake Forest's football team this fall as the Demon Deacons have had a resurgence on the gridiron.
Wake Forest stands at 5-2 overall and 4-1 in ACC play heading into Saturday's in-state clash with the 5-3 Tar Heels, who are still smarting a blowout loss at Clemson last weekend that put them a dismal 1-3 in the conference.
UNC desperately needs to beat Wake Forest in order to continue harboring optimism for a decent bowl game, while the Demon Deacons are playing to stay in the hunt in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
Should the Deacons knock off UNC on Saturday in Kenan Stadium, they will play at Clemson November 12 with the ACC Atlantic Division title up for grabs.
Check out Doster's comprehensive breakdown of Wake Forest in another pregame edition of 'A Closer Look.'
Talk about the resurgence of Wake Forest football this fall under Jim Grobe. Is it mainly because this team is simply more experienced than last year? What are the things this team is doing so well this season to give themselves a chance to play in a bowl game and perhaps even more?
The experience certainly does help, but the Demon Deacons have also been fortunate to not have any season-ending injuries to starters. The team's chemistry is really strong. Grobe often talks about how the players enjoy being together, and the offensive and defensive guys really support one another well. This is a close-knit team.
Despite being undersized the defense has been very opportunistic, forcing turnovers and making plays. The Deacs had five takeaways in their 35-30 win over then No. 23 Florida State. The strength of the defense is its secondary. Freshman cornerback Merrill Noel leads the ACC in pass breakups with 15. Senior strong safety Cyhl Quarles leads the team in tackles with 63, and provides key leadership to the entire unit.
Also be on the lookout for nose guard Nikita Whitlock. He is building on last season's second team Freshman All-America campaign. Senior outside linebacker Kyle Wilber is a play-maker, and brings pressure from the perimeter.
The defense is building depth as a unit, but may struggle against North Carolina's bigger offensive line, making it difficult to pressure Bryn Renner and defend Gio Bernard.
Break down the relationship on the field between Wake quarterback Tanner Price and top receiver Chris Givens. Price has consistently gone to Givens time after time this fall, and Givens has rarely let him down. What is it that's making that connection so valuable this season for the Demon Deacons?
Obviously they are very in sync with one another right now. Chris Givens has matured not just as a football player, but also as a person, which has endeared him to his teammates and coaches. It's hard to find a guy with the type of speed Givens brings to the table.
Clemson's Sammy Watkins may be the only receiver in the ACC comparable to Givens when it comes to speed, talent and big-play capability.
What has probably made the biggest difference this season is that Tanner Price has been in the system for a year. He knows and understands the offense, what his receivers like and do not like, and has had time to get them the ball. Along with its secondary Wake's receiving corps is one of the most balanced position groups on the team and in the ACC, making life for Price easy.
Everyone is talking Givens up, and rightfully so, but do not forget Michael Campanaro, Danny Dembry and Terence Davis. They have all rose to the occasion when called upon to make big plays this season. UNC's young and injury-riddled secondary has quite the challenge on its hands.
Wake's receivers are as good or better than other the Tar Heels have and will face this season, and having a quarterback as good as Price makes this challenge an even greater load to handle for a defense on its heels.
Defensively, where are the strengths of this Wake Forest team? How has the adjustment to the 3-4 scheme gone over the course of the season? Where are the places where this Demon Deacon defense is vulnerable?
As specified above Wake Forest's defense is highlighted by strong play from its secondary two studs on its front seven in Whitlock and Wilber. The Demon Deacons are also building depth at linebacker, and up front. The switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 was what the Deacs needed.
After making the switch co-defensive coordinators Tim Billings and Brian Knorr are able to better use their personel. For example at a lean 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds Wilber is better suited for outside linebacker than defensive end. He is still able to come in hard as a pass-rusher, but also helps with support against the run on the perimeter, and his height also helps in pass defense.
The 3-4 scheme also enables the Deacs to use their abundance of linebackers (17), while a 4-3 does not. Wake simply just did not have the depth in its interior defensive line to play a 4-3 successfully, so moving to the 3-4 was smart, and it is paying off."
Wake Forest's running game seems to be in a state of flux right now. Where is Josh Harris in terms of getting back up to full speed, and who are the key guys behind him that figure to play if he can't go again this week?
This area of the offense appears to be an enigma. The Deacs show flashes of great running from time to time, but not on a consistent basis. Josh Harris exploded for 136 yards against the Seminoles, but that performance appears to be just a blip on the screen in comparison to the rest of this season's output on the ground.
Since lighting up FSU Harris has been recovering from a strained hamstring. He will return this week, but Grobe said Brandon Pendergrass is the starter and that reps will be shared.
The Deacs want to run the ball, and stats show they have not given up on it. At the same time with the success Wake is having in its passing attack it is easy to think the run is just there to keep opposing defenses honest.
This may be one of the worst rushing offenses Carolina will face this season, so the Heels should be able to focus their attention more on how to pressure Price and slow down Wake's stellar passing game."
Should Wake Forest manage to knock off North Carolina, they'll head to Clemson after a non-conference game against Notre Dame with the ACC Atlantic Division title on the line. Is this Wake Forest team good enough to do what they have to do to beat UNC, and are they a legitimate contender to win the school's second ACC title in six seasons?
Wake is good enough to beat UNC, but the Demon Deacons often live and die on the other team's blunders. Their win over Florida State and their loss to Virginia Tech are great examples. Against the Seminoles the Deacs forced five turnovers, but not a single one against the Hokies. They live and die by opportunity.
All North Carolina has to do is protect the football, and run it successfully and it will be a happy Homecoming in Chapel Hill.
Wake Forest could not be drawing the Tar Heels at a better time. UNC's coaching situation is uncertain, the NCAA investigation still hangs over the program like a black cloud, and the team has been bitten by the injury bug in recent weeks.
The loss of Matt Merletti is a devastating blow to an already very maligned secondary, which has the task of defending one of the conference's elite receiving corps. Wake has much in its favor, but cannot afford to take the Heels lightly.
Bowl implications are on the line for both teams, so the Deacs should expect Carolina's best effort. With a spot in the ACC Championship still within its reach Wake cannot afford to drop its guard against a team with arguably as much NFL talent as any squad on the schedule.
The Deacs are good enough to accomplish what many perceived as the impossible during the pre-season, but will not if they take the opposition lightly or shoot themselves in the foot.
What is more important is that Wake knows all of this, and should be ready to pick a fight in Kenan Stadium Saturday. Expect a focused and disciplined effort from the Black and Gold.