Saturday's contest in Winston-Salem could have major ACC Atlantic Division implications as Louisville looks to extend its winning streak to four games against a Wake Forest team that is undefeated and ranked in the Top 25.
The Demon Deacons are 4-0 and a perfect 2-0 in ACC play after beating Florida State and Virginia by a combined 41 points. As a result, Wake Forest enters Saturday's contest ranked No. 24. Since a bad first half against Ole Miss, Louisville has been a pretty good football team. The Cardinals are 3-1 and coming off hard-fought wins over UCF and Florida State.
Wake Forest will be favored for the matchup, but Louisville has won the last two meetings in the series. The Cardinals handed a ranked Wake Forest team its first loss of the season in its most recent trip to Truist Field (formerly BB&T Field) in 2019. Last season, Louisville throttled the Demon Deacons, 45-21. Since joining the ACC in 2014, Louisville has won five of the seven meetings.
Louisville at No. 24 Wake Forest
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Wake Forest -6.5
When Louisville Has the Ball
Louisville sits in the middle of the pack offensively in the ACC. The Cardinals have shown an ability to put up points in bunches, but doing it throughout the course of the game is the challenge. After racing to a 31-7 lead last week, Louisville was blanked in the second half in a 31-23 win at Florida State. Quarterback Malik Cunningham does it all for the Cardinals. He enters Saturday's contest as the team's leading passer and rusher with 13 total touchdowns. Cunningham accounted for three scores in last season's victory. Perhaps most important is the fact that Cunningham seems to have overcome his turnover issues. He's been intercepted just twice so far this season.
Running back Jalen Mitchell and tight end Marshon Ford are two other players to watch for the Louisville offense. Mitchell is a bruising 220-pound runner with 242 rushing yards this season, while Ford will serve as the go-to guy in critical third-down situations. Mitchell rushed for 168 yards in last season's 45-21 win over the Demon Deacons. The Cardinals have very good depth at wide receiver. Center Cole Bentley headlines an offensive line that has allowed just five sacks this season. Among ACC teams, only Boston College has allowed fewer.
Wake Forest was expected to do well offensively this season. The bigger surprise so far has been the play of the defense. The Demon Deacons haven't allowed more than 16 points in any game this season and lead the conference with 11 takeaways. A big reason for the success so far is the pass rush. Wake Forest ranks eighth nationally with 15 sacks and has four players with multiple sacks. Luiji Vilain leads the way with 2.5 thus far.
Wake Forest will try to get pressure against a Louisville offensive line that hasn't allowed much. It will also try to create turnovers against an offense that isn't giving the ball away. Traveon Redd and Caelen Carson each have two interceptions this season for the Demon Deacons. Boston College is the only other ACC team with multiple players with multiple interceptions. Perhaps the best player on defense is linebacker Luke Masterson, who has two sacks to go with a team-high 27 total tackles.
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
Like Louisville, Wake Forest is very experienced behind center. Also, like Louisville, that signal-caller has taken very good care of the football. In his fourth year with the program, Sam Hartman enters Saturday's contest as the No. 4-rated passer in the ACC. Hartman passes for 240.3 yards per game and has 10 total touchdowns compared to just one interception. A.T. Perry and Jaquarrii Roberson have been a dynamic duo out wide for the Demon Deacons this season. The two have combined for 537 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
Behind Hartman, Wake Forest has a stable. Christian Beal-Smith, Justice Ellison, and Christian Turner all have at least 170 rushing yards so far this season and have combined for eight rushing touchdowns. The three all have similar running styles, but Beal-Smith is the workhorse of the group. Like Louisville, the Demon Deacons have excelled in pass protection. Left tackle Zach Tom anchors an offensive line that has also allowed just five sacks.
It has been an up-and-down season for Louisville defensively so far, but it should be noted that the Cardinals have played two of the nation's best in Ole Miss and UCF. Wake Forest, however, has scored at least 35 points in every game. The Cardinals were dealt a significant blow recently when it was learned that linebacker Monty Montgomery was out for the season with a torn ACL. Still, the Cardinals are very good at the linebacker position.
C.J. Avery, Jack Fagot, and Yasir Abdullah have skills that mesh well together. Fagot and Avery are among the top tacklers for the Cardinals, while Abdullah leads the team with four sacks. Louisville hasn't been great when it comes to rushing the passer but recorded a season-high six sacks in last week's win over Florida State. Ashton Gillotte has provided pressure from his defensive end position, but Louisville has hardly been stout against the run. The Cardinals rank just 12th in the ACC in rushing defense and the worst in yards per rush allowed. In the secondary, Kenderick Duncan Jr. and Kei'Trel Clark are the names to know. Duncan is tied for the team lead with 25 tackles, while Clark leads the ACC with three interceptions, including the game-clinching pick in last week's win at FSU.
Should this one come down to special teams, both teams have solid units. Louisville's James Turner and Wake Forest's Nick Sciba are both excellent placekickers. Braden Smith for the Cardinals and Wake's Taylor Morin also are very good return specialists, but the former suffered a knee injury in last week's win over Florida State and is out for the rest of the season.
Offensively, both teams can put up points, but the difference on Saturday will be the Wake Forest defense. The Cardinals will probably have more success than the Demon Deacons' other opponents, but Wake should be able to generate enough pressure to make things difficult on Cunningham and perhaps force a turnover or two. On offense, Wake Forest should be able to run the ball well enough to set up play-action for Hartman and a solid corps of pass-catchers. Having this one in Winston-Salem could also make a difference.
Prediction: Wake Forest 34, Louisville 27
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.