SUFFERN, N.Y. – One of the most devastating offensive performances in recent college football history unfolded at West Point on Saturday. Wake Forest’s 70-point, 10-touchdown outburst at Army came with the Demon Deacons having the ball for just 17 minutes and 17 seconds, their scoring drives averaging less than two minutes each.
The victory propelled the No. 13 Demon Deacons to the school’s highest ranking since 1947 and its first 7-0 start since 1944. A victory over Duke on Saturday will position Wake Forest on the outskirts of the conversation for the College Football Playoff when the standings are released next week.
How did Wake Forest arrive at this generational moment? Well, much like its offense – both slowly and lightning fast. The Demon Deacons got here by a tempo offense that’s defined by a delayed run game, invented out of necessity and tweaked to its current juggernaut by one of the game’s most innovative coordinators.
They’ve shined without the benefits of recruiting stars, as they’ve twice in the past five years had the ACC’s lowest rated recruiting class. And they’ve built gradually thanks to coaching continuity and a scheme that has put Wake Forest a step ahead in Dave Clawson’s eighth season there.
“It’s fun to watch,” Army coach Jeff Monken said, “and a pain in the butt to go against.”
'There’s no one else on the planet running what they run'
Picture the tempo from Art Briles’ RPO revolution at Baylor, rhythm from LaVell Edwards’ West Coast attack at BYU and downfield passing aggression from Run And Shoot godfather Mouse Davis. Add in the trademark delayed run game with an exaggerated mesh point, and Wake Forest has evolved into the sport’s buzziest offense.
Wake Forest averages 43.1 points per game, fifth best in the country, and is No. 16 overall in total offense with 469 yards per game. It has also become the program coaches marvel at for maximizing talent and inducing migraines for defensive coordinators.
Clawson credits offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero, his trusty wingman since their days at Bowling Green in 2009, for an offense that has evolved, grown and been refined to become one of the most dynamic in the sport.
“There’s no one else on the planet running what they run,” said an opposing coach. “[Ruggiero] is the best offensive coordinator in the country and Clawson is the best coach in the ACC. It’s not even close. How Michigan or someone like that doesn’t go after him is nuts. I know it’s not sexy, but rarely do you see a team fix their flaws on offense from year to year like they do.”
One of the offense’s few weaknesses is the difficulty in easily quantifying and defining itself. The offense is so unique that opposing coaches compare it to the rarity of playing a triple-option team.
“I joke that we run the triple option from sexier formations,” Clawson told Yahoo Sports last week. “It’s really what we do. We line up as a spread offense. ... And in most of our plays, there’s a run or dive aspect, a quarterback run aspect and instead of a pitch, there’s a pass aspect.
“A lot of the plays that we run have those three elements to it. And so it really becomes a systematic, repetition offense. When you run most offenses — the defense does this, we’re going to do this. We build those answers into our plays.”
Wake Forest holds onto the mesh point for an eternity pic.twitter.com/nn4ya7ubWm
— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) November 13, 2019
Here's how Wake Forest's mesh point can destroy its opposition
Defenses are lacking for answers. The nexus of the offense’s aura comes from the elongated mesh point on some plays – though not all – that are Wake Forest’s unique spin on the blender of different systems. The mesh point is where quarterback Sam Hartman hands the ball off to a tailback, holding the ball near his belly while simultaneously reading the defense with his head up.
“The mesh point normally takes a half-a-second,” said another opposing coach. “Their's takes anywhere from a half-second to 3 seconds.”
The genius of Wake’s spin on these RPOs, according to the coaches who face them, is Hartman’s ability to make multiple reads during that delayed mesh point before deciding to hand off the ball. That ability to manipulate defenses has helped him become Pro Football Focus’ No. 6 rated quarterback, as he’s putting multiple defenders in distress. “A lot of RPOs put one person in conflict,” Clawson said. “The way we run ours puts multiple in conflict.”
And that leaves defensive coordinators needing to come up with unusual and exacting gameplans for Wake Forest. “You have to be perfect,” said another opposing coach. If your [defender’s] eyes are wrong, they will gash you. If you are fundamentally sound, you will be in a ballgame with them. If you are undisciplined, they will blow you out.”
It’d be unfair to overrate the scheme and not recognize the talent. Hartman plays the perfect quarterback maestro, throwing 19 touchdowns, just three interceptions and completing 65.3 percent of his passes. There’s a trio of talented tailbacks – Christian Beal-Smith (4.6 ypc), Justice Ellison (4.6) and Christian Turner (3.9) – who’ve thrived after the transfer of Kenneth Walker III to Michigan State. And there’s a pair of marauding receivers, A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson, who are among the ACC’s Top 7 receivers and have combined for 13 touchdown passes this season.
Clawson points out that Roberson didn’t have another Power Five offer and the Demon Deacons offered Hartman as a rising sophomore. He said Wake cares little about recruiting rankings, so the school is unburdened by the social media pressure of waiting until a player is a four-star before he's offered. The program has proven to thrive by identifying players it likes and recruiting them agnostic to perception.
Clawson complimented Ruggiero’s ability to identify unpolished gems and project how well players will fit in Wake Forest’s offense. That effort is aided by the continuity of Wake’s staff, as running backs coach John Hunter, receivers coach Kevin Higgins and offensive line coach Nick Tabacca have been there all eight of Clawson’s seasons. (Tight ends coach Wayne Lineburg is the new offensive coach, in his fifth year on the staff.)
Clawson says Ruggiero doesn’t get enough credit for Wake’s offensive success, and Clawson jokes that the only play call the head coach has made during his time at Wake has been instructing Ruggiero to take a knee in victory formation.
“He’s a very good evaluator in recruiting in saying, ‘That guy can do this for us.’” Clawson said of Ruggiero. “A lot of the guys we built this thing with were guys that other people didn’t want. The emphasis of the system changes based on our relative strengths and weaknesses.”
Evolving offense emphasizes protecting the QB
In 2016, Wake Forest finished No. 118 nationally in offense – 10 spots from the bottom of the sport – when it decided that it needed to evolve the offense to better protect the quarterback. The staff won with a power running game at Bowling Green, and it needed to concoct something totally different at Wake Forest.
That power style wasn’t going to work at Wake Forest, as the Deacons finished No. 113 in sacks allowed in 2016. Without the four-stars or archetype athletes to protect the passer, Ruggiero needed the scheme to build in protection.
Clawson said Ruggiero built the offense on the tenet of protecting the quarterback. A ramped-up tempo would make it harder for opposing teams to sub defensive linemen, which dulls the effectiveness of the pass rush when those players get tired. Clawson also said that one of the hardest things for a defensive lineman to do is switch from playing the run to suddenly playing the pass on a play-action.
“The RPO allowed almost every pass to start out as a run,” Clawson said. “It made us more effective throwing the ball by helping our protection. The longer we are here at Wake Forest, after one or two years, we felt like this is a place we had to be a little bit unconventional.”
Clawson wanted aspects of option football, just not the wishbone. So the option came at the mesh point, as he said Wake now runs about 20 percent of its plays using the delayed run game. (The Demon Deacons also run the ball at high tempo and regular tempo, which takes divots from the hairlines of defensive coordinators.)
Clawson happily spoke of the offense’s origins and evolution. But he wouldn’t dial in on how the quarterback reads the defense, which he sees as a competitive advantage. “That’s the stuff we don’t share,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who run RPOs. How we read stuff is very unique to us.”
The reads can put virtually any defender in conflict to choose run or pass on a given play, and the offense is designed to have built-in answers for whatever choice the defender has. “It changes by the play,” Clawson said of who is in conflict. “Other than the defensive tackles, at some point everyone can be in conflict.”
Along with the RPO game, there’s still a traditional dropback passing game. That’s where some of the West Coast timing and Run and Shoot concepts shine.
“If we know they are outnumbering us, why go through this rigmarole,” Clawson said, standing up to mimic the mesh point. “Right? A lot of times, if people are hedging the box and playing the numbers game, then we’ll RPO it. If they’re not going to declare what they are doing pre-snap, we’ll find out post-snap. If they already declare what they are doing, then a lot of the same things we’re running in the RPO we can just run in the dropback game.”
As an interview wore on last week, there was a tinge of annoyance – just a tinge – when a reporter asked about things all coming together for Wake Forest – the schedule, five Super Seniors on defense and a dip from Clemson’s run of superiority.
Clawson pointed out that Wake would be this good on offense without Super Seniors, as there’s only one on offense – reliable reserve receiver Donald Stewart. As for the offense, Clawson pointed out that since the sack-happy 2016 season marred by offensive impotence (20.4 ppg), Wake has averaged more than 30 points per game every year, including 36 ppg in 2019. A lot of this isn’t new for Wake Forest, just the attention is new.
The Demon Deacons started that 2019 season 7-1 with wins over North Carolina, Florida State and N.C. State before losing four of five at the end of the year. Clawson said this year’s team is attempting to live a “good to great” mantra with a singular focus on daily improvement that eluded it after the hot start in 2019. “Two years ago, we stopped living it,” he said. “Honestly, we got to 7-1 and we got a lot of attention guys weren’t used to and some selfishness creeped into our program.”
Wake is a 16.5-point BetMGM favorite against Duke this weekend before finishing at UNC, N.C. State, at Clemson and at Boston College. Wake is alone in first place in the ACC Atlantic (4-0), and will attempt to write a different ending than in 2019 and win the school’s first ACC title since Jim Grobe’s 2006 Orange Bowl team that went 11-3.
“I look at our schedule, and I think every single team on our schedule we play could beat us,” he said. “Every team we play, if we play well, we have a shot to win.”
So as Wake surges to generational highs and its offense bends paradigms, Clawson is trying to do what opposing coordinators can’t – keep Wake grounded.