CFB GAME PREVIEW: North Carolina @ Wake Forest
By Joshua Edwards
The Tar Heels were supposed to be 0-2 at this point but at 2-0 they’re rolling. Old rivals Wake Forest have their hands full on Friday night. Josh Edwards previews the action from Winston-Salem here:
THE TWO TEAMS:
North Carolina are off to a flying start this season under returning head coach Mack Brown. The Tar Heels beat South Carolina as 12pt underdogs in the opener and went 2-0 last weekend by dispatching Miami 28-25, that time as 4.5pt underdogs. On both occasions true freshman Sam Howell led the Tar Heels on game winning fourth quarter drives. They have a genuine shot to be 4-0 when they host national champs Clemson in Chapel Hill on the 28th of September, if they can navigate Wake Forest and Appalachian State successfully in the next two weeks.
Wake Forest are 2-0 to open up the season after wins against Utah State (38-25 at home) and Rice (41-21 on the road), both of which were also on Friday nights. Redshirt freshman QB Jamie Newman has been perfect thus far, leading the ACC with 365 passing yards per game, throwing 6 touchdowns and no picks. The Deacons have been impressive through the air but struggled with the run, averaging just 4 yards per carry (6th in the ACC), though last year’s star running back Cade Carney didn’t play against Rice and is questionable for tonight’s game.
These two have played plenty of times as ACC members with UNC holding a 69-35-2 advantage over the Wake Forest. As multiple ACC expansions have put the two colleges in separate divisions the teams no longer meet annually. The last game was a 50-14 Tar Heel win back in 2015.
Mack Brown returned to North Carolina last season after a five year absence from head coaching. It had also been over twenty years since Brown left the Tar Heels for Texas. He had been incredibly successful in Austin, winning a national championship and going on a 9 season run where the team won at least 10 games in each of those years. In total, before re-joining North Carolina, Brown had won 244 games at 4 different colleges, and was justifiably enshrined at the CFB Hall of Fame last year. After the ceremony, whilst taking the time to thank his supporters and making calls and visits to old friends and colleagues, Brown was convinced to come back to North Carolina and take over the ailing programme.
Few would have expected such an immediate turnaround. Brown was expected to lean on the run game, especially sophomore Javonte Williams, but has been more balanced and shown great confidence in freshman QB Sam Howell. Brown brought in Phil Longo as OC and has entrusted him with the running of the adapted air raid offense with which Longo had such success at Ole Miss.
At Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson has been in charge since the 2014 season and has been credited with bringing unprecedented success to the programme in the modern era. Over the first 5 seasons he posted 28 wins, a feat never accomplished by any predecessor. After a couple of rebuild years Clawson led the Deacons to their first bowl win in eight seasons in 2016, beating 23rd ranked Temple 34-26 in the Military Bowl. The following year saw more bowl success, with Wake Forest beating Texas A&M in a record breaking 55-52 win at Bank Of America stadium. Clawson’s philosophy has been predicated on redshirting freshman and improving the strength and conditioning programme in Winston-Salem.
THE KEY MATCHUP: Wake Forest’s WR corps vs. a banged up Tar Heels secondary
Wake Forest are loaded at wide receiver. Sage Surratt is 6’3 and Scotty Washington is 6’5. Through two games this season Surratt has 13 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns and Washington has 11 catches for 204 yards and three scores. Patrick Rene would have been the starting corner for UNC but is out for the season with a torn ACL, so it is worth keeping an eye on whether Greg Ross and Trey Morrison can cover the Deacons big wideouts. Ross and Morrison are 6’ and 5’10 respectively, so Surratt and Washington certainly have the size advantage. For Wake Forest to hang with the high powered Tar Heels Jamie Newman will need to get Surratt and Washington the ball early and often for chunk plays down the field.
THE DRAFT PROSPECTS:
Charlie Heck, T: Heck is huge. At 6’7 and 310lbs the right tackle is the standout lineman for UNC. He uses that length to his advantage but has the surprising agility that NFL teams will look for. He might not be considered an elite prospect, mostly because he’s a tackle first and athlete second, but he’s good enough to be an early round pick and in solid starter consideration at the pro level.
Myles Dorn, S: Dorn’s dad played for the Tar Heels in the ‘80s and was a senior when Mack Brown joined the team as head coach. Dorn JR now has a chance to impress Brown and certainly stands out at 6’2 and 205lbs. He has a broad enough skillset to tempt NFL teams at safety or cornerback.
Essang Bassey, CB: Bassey is undersized at 5’10 and 185lbs but has above average football instincts, speed, range and ball skills. If he can improve on his physicality and tackling, and increase his tally of picks (just one last year), he could be in consideration for an early round pick in the spring.
Justin Strnad, LB: Strnad is an instinctive, quick to react inside backer who, as team captain, has impressed coaches year on year with his effort and engine. He needs to add bulk to his lean frame and there are question marks over his ability to change direction smoothly, but if he can get more physical in his senior year he may catch the eye of some NFL teams.
Sage Surratt, WR: Back in 2017 Surratt made the switch from hoops to football and hasn’t looked back. He may not declare early for the draft but the junior is worth keeping an eye on. At 6’3 and 213lbs the wideout certainly has all the physical tools, and has already caught a pair of touchdowns this season, averaging over 15 yards per reception. He would be a cool storyline to follow if he did forgo his senior year and look to the pro level in 2020.
A tough one to call in Winston-Salem, but I’m a sucker for a great storyline, and for the underdog, and I like the Tar Heels to pull off their third straight upset win and keep rolling under Mack Brown, at least for now. If Sam Howell can continue to play mistake free football then North Carolina can stay ahead on the scoreboard, despite Wake Forest’s dangerous skill position players. If the Tar Heels do beat Wake Forest they’ll have dispatched three Power 5 teams in the opening three games and can legitimately start dreaming big, and who would blame them?
Score prediction: North Carolina 31-27 Wake Forest