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Wake Forest at Indiana Game Preview: Hoosiers look for a perfect non-conference record against the Demon Deacons

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Indiana is now top-50 in the S&P+ and that comes with IMPORTANT RESPONSIBILITIES such as not losing to Wake Forest.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Wake Forest Demon Deacons (3-0, #68 S&P+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (2-0, #44 S&P+)

When? Saturday, 9/24, 3:30 PM, Bloomington, Indiana

Channel? Big Ten Network

Vegas? INDIANA -7.5

____________________________________

It's the final non-conference game of Indiana's season! Dave Clawson makes his first trip to Bloomington since getting drubbed in Memorial Stadium with Bowling Green back in 2013 and tries to knock off the Hoosiers after falling just short last season in Winston-Salem.

LET'S DIG IN.

FIVE FACTORS

(% indicates how often a team wins the game if they win that battle. Explanation here.)

Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)
Finishing Drives
(72%)
Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#43 Offense) 1.31 (59th) 48.4% (19th) 30.5 (66th) 4.27 (99th) +5 (6th)
WAKE FOREST (#36 Defense) 1.03 (16th) 35.2% (31st) 29.9 (88th) 2.71 (8th) 0 (61st)

Explosiveness
(86%)
Efficiency
(83%)
Field Position
(75%)

Finishing Drives
(72%)

Turnover Margin
(73%)
INDIANA (#60 Defense)
1.32 (83rd)
32.6% (21st)
21.7 (1st)
4.13 (43rd)
+5 (6th)
WAKE FOREST (#103 Offense)
1.15 (108th)
42.3% (66th)
29.4 (84th)
4.93 (58th)
0 (61st)

THE OPPONENT

The Demon Deacons come into Saturday's tilt like a bizarro-2015 Indiana, carrying a gigantic split between their offensive and defensive units, but with the defense being the elite unit and the offense being one of the most inept in the country.

It's likely not going to get better any time soon for the Demon Deacons, as starting quarterback Kendall Hinton could up to a month with a sprained PCL and will assuredly miss Saturday's game. Wake's best running back, Cade Carney, has a sprained MCL and is likely to miss a few weeks as well, with his status for Saturday being doubtful. John Wolford will get the nod after coming on in relief of the injured Hinton against Delaware, going 13/24 for 155 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception.

Wolford, a junior, has been around Winston-Salem for awhile, amassing over 4000 passing yards with a 58.9% completion percentage for his career. His career yards per attempt is 6.3 and he's thrown 22 touchdowns against 26 interceptions. Simply put, Wolford is a guy that doesn't make a lot of big throws and compounds that by also turning it over a ton. With Hinton, the threat to tuck and run made the passing offense less predictable, Wofford isn't that kind of quarterback.

The Demon Deacons will run early and often, they rank in the top 18 for percentage of running plays on both standard and passing downs. They are somewhat efficient running the ball overall (39th) but tend to get stuffed for no gain or loss a lot and don't have the explosiveness to make up for it. All of these issues get worse, theoretically, when one of their best running backs is likely to miss the game.

When they do pass, whether it be with Wofford or Hinton, it's Extremely Bad. Only 18 teams are less efficient throwing the ball and their sack rates are atrocious, likely due to a combination of the quarterbacks holding onto the ball too long and the line simply not holding up.

If Wake is to win, they're likely to do it with defense. Despite being handed shorter-than-average fields most of the time, Wake's defense has done a great job of keeping opposing offenses off schedule and out of the endzone, while being among the nation's best at eliminating big plays. Now, one should note that these performances have come against Duke (lost starting quarterback for season), Delaware (FCS school), and Tulane (is Tulane) so it's fair to wonder what the unit actually is and what has been a product of the schedule, but they're statistically the best defense Indiana has seen this season and will likely be the best non-conference opponent they faced when we look back on the year.

It starts with their defensive line, who rank 9th in Havoc Rate and the linebackers behind them aren't too shabby (36th). Junior pass rusher Duke Ejiofor (which is a top-notch name for a pass rusher) is a monster, with 11 sacks / TFLs already. No Indiana player has more than 3.5 (Ralph Green III). The Wake secondary is shaky and could be exploited, provided Indiana's offensive line (which could be missing their best player) can give Lagow enough time to find his receivers.

THE HOOSIERS

Have the Hoosiers suddenly found balance? After years of a ridiculous split between their offensive and defensive units, they're currently trotting out two units that are both marginally better than average, and an offense that is trending up.

Offensively, Indiana is getting it done by staying on schedule, as they rank 19th in Success Rate which measures how often a team picks up the yards it needs (measured as 50% of the yards needed on first down, 75% of the yards needed on second down, and 100% of the yards needed on third or fourth down.) That said, they remain a work in progress when it comes to generating explosive plays. The current state of the Hoosier offense is reliant on stringing lots of plays together in order to score, and it results in them getting bogged down late in drives and settling for too many field goals, and that leads to their woeful numbers when it comes to finishing drives.

We did see a lot more big plays against Ball State than we saw against FIU, with Nick Westbrook reeling in two big touchdowns and the running backs breaking out for a couple of big runs, but they're a far cry from what the unit was a year ago, when Nate Sudfeld and co. were a legitimate threat to score on any given play. Richard Lagow has done a great job of avoiding huge mistakes, but if Indiana is to hang with the big boy defenses in the Big Ten, they'll need to find a way to generate chunk yardage. Simmie Cobbs is likely to miss most, if not all, of the season but plenty of the guys responsible for last year's big plays remain.

Defensively, the Hoosiers have the opposite issue. They excel at keeping offenses off schedule with great first and second down play, but are prone to wasting the effort by giving up long conversions on third down. They do tend to tighten up inside the opponent's 40-yard line and, to date, have benefited from an offense / special teams unit that sets them up with great field position, as Indiana opponents are starting their drives, on average, just past their own 21-yard line. Thanks largely to an offense that gets points / doesn't turn it over and a punt unit that has pinned the opposition inside their twenty 60% of the time, the defense is given large amounts of yardage to protect.

The switch to the 4-2-5 is showing great early returns, as Indiana's defensive backs are by far the team's best unit and the formation allows the Hoosiers to play five of them at the same time. The unit is 11th in both Havoc Rate and Passes Defensed / Incomplete Pass ratio. This unit that struggled mightily to play the ball in the air last season and Tom Allen has not only addressed the weakness, but turned it into a strength.

THREE THINGS

  • Paging Ricky Jones: The senior wideout has been a bystander through two games, with only three catches for 18 yards and one nifty two-point conversion on an end-around. As a junior, Jones led the Hoosiers in yards per target and finished second in touchdowns but has been an afterthought so far this year. Might be a good idea to engineer some looks for the wideout early on.
  • Trench War: Indiana's line, even without Dan Feeney, is the strength of the offense and Wake's defensive line has been one of the best early in the year. Probably not a stretch to say the winner of the game is likely the team who wins at the line of scrimmage when the Hoosiers are on offense.
  • Finish Drives: Griffin Oakes is a very good kicker who has made many good kicks, most notably in the second overtime of the 2015 Pinstripe Bowl, where the kick was good. However, I am getting a little tired of seeing The Maker of Good Kicks coming in after the offense stalls out in opposing territory. Finishing drives helps finish games, and it's something the Hoosiers need to improve at in this final game before the B1G season.

PREDICTION

In the preseason predictions I had this game as 42-14 and called it the easiest non-conference game of the schedule. That was wrong (FIU being a trash pile was unforeseen) and I shall make amends. The Hoosiers offensive line neutralizes Wake's great defensive line enough that their lack of offensive firepower prevents them from making anyone too nervous. Hoosiers 31, Wake Forest 14