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Why play-calling is disrupting Wake Forest’s bowl hopes

 

When you’re terrible, no one spends the time to pick apart the small details. They just know you’re terrible, and that’s enough.

But when you start to show signs of improvement, people want more of it, so they pay more attention to the details. And sometimes, that’s not pretty.

Because Wake Forest’s offense was so bad for Dave Clawson’s first two seasons, offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero got a pass. No one paid much attention to what Ruggiero was up to since they knew his line couldn’t block anyone.

But now that the Deacons are looking for a winning season and bowl eligibility, Ruggiero’s work deserves a closer look.

No one can say that Ruggiero doesn’t understand the offensive side of the ball. He’s been a coordinator for 25 years, and he’s built highly ranked offenses around top quarterbacks, including NFL first-rounder Josh Freeman. His 2013 offense at Bowling Green was fourth in the country in total offense (per possession) and 10th in the nation in pass efficiency.

However, those credentials don’t mean Ruggiero is above scrutiny.

Specifically, his play-calling in the loss to Army was questionable. More generally, his offense has seemed vanilla and predictable this season.

Against Army, the Deacons fell in love with the pass. Against a running team that loves to control the time of possession and wear you down, focusing on high-risk, low-percentage passing was an odd choice.

On the first drive, Ruggiero started off with a good mix; the first four plays were two runs and two screen passes for 29 total yards. Then he dialed up two straight long passes, the first of which went incomplete and the second intercepted.

On the second drive, facing 3rd-and-6, Ruggiero called for a deep pass that fell incomplete.

On the third drive, quarterback John Wolford finally threw a completion, finding Tabari Hines for 48 yards down the middle. But he was intercepted on the next play trying to throw 20 yards downfield.

By the second half, Ruggiero had abandoned the run. The Deacons threw 27 times to eight runs (only three by running backs). Wolford was picked off again on a long pass, 30 yards downfield.

If you think that philosophy was because the Deacons were playing catch up, only eight of those pass attempts came when Wake Forest trailed by more than four points.

After the game, Clawson mentioned that the Deacons needed to beat the tight coverage deep and that they didn’t do it. But that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The long passing game has only worked about once a game so far this season.

On a bigger scale, the question is whether Ruggiero is being creative enough to keep defenses off-balance. The Deacons learned a number of things during the Jim Grobe era, and one was that if you can’t compete on straight-up talent, then you’d better be creative.

Grobe’s offenses were the most creative under Troy Calhoun, who went on to the NFL and now is the head coach at Air Force. But Grobe and his staff continued that thinking, even when their teams were better. For example, in the 2006 Orange Bowl season, receivers Willie Idlette and Kevin Marion combined to carry the ball 48 times. Kenneth Moore played both receiver and tailback, catching 32 passes and running 105 times. Receiver Nate Morton threw four passes.

The 2016 Deacons aren’t keeping defenses guessing very often. Their running game mostly consists of the same quarterback-read play, off of which there are a few options. Essentially, because of lack of variety, individuals are asked to beat the opposing players every time.

Sure, Wake Forest runs its receivers in the orbit behind the quarterback and tailback, but there’s little reason for defenses to respect that motion. Wake Forest receivers have three carries this season.

The passing game is similarly static: screen passes and deep prayers, with an occasional wheel route thrown in. The Deacons have almost abandoned the middle of the field, a place where current tight end Cam Serigne and former receiver Michael Campanaro have punished teams in the past. It doesn’t appear that the Deacons target many short routes in the middle, like digs, slants or hitches.

The lack of variety is odd because the Deacons finally have blocking to give different plays time to develop.

So while the offense may soon get a lift from the return of multi-talented quarterback Kendall Hinton, the Deacons don’t have the talent to win every individual matchup. They may need even more of that variety than other programs if they’re going to go bowling this season.