Wake Forest and Syracuse both watched last week's contests end on last-second field goals. One team, however, walked off the field in jubilation. The other left in despair. The two will meet this week in the Carrier Dome in a pivotal ACC Atlantic showdown.
The Demon Deacons have perhaps been the most pleasant surprise in the ACC this season. Wake Forest is a perfect 5-0 (3-0 ACC) and is ranked No. 19. Like Wake, Syracuse also has already exceeded last season's win total as it enters Saturday's contest with a 3-2 record. Last week, the Orange opened ACC play with a 33-30 loss at Florida State on a last-second field goal. Likewise, it was a last-second kick from Nick Sciba that lifted the Demon Deacons to a 37-34 home win over Louisville.
As a result of last year's COVID-19 scheduling, Saturday's contest will be the third straight meeting between these teams at the Carrier Dome. The Demon Deacons dominated the most recent encounter, winning 38-14 behind three touchdown runs from Kenneth Walker III, who is now at Michigan State. Syracuse holds a 6-4 edge in the all-time series that only dates back to 2006. Wake Forest has won three of the last five matchups.
No. 19 Wake Forest at Syracuse
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Wake Forest -6
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
Wake Forest has one of the most prolific and balanced offenses in the ACC. Quarterback Sam Hartman and running back Christian Beal-Smith are both four-year players with a ton of experience for the Demon Deacons. Hartman has played efficiently and turnover-free while Beal-Smith is part of a three-headed monster at tailback with Justice Ellison and Christian Turner. Beal-Smith is the workhorse and leads the Demon Deacons with 312 rushing yards and four touchdown runs. Hartman ranks third in the ACC in passer rating and has 13 total touchdowns compared to just two interceptions.
The Demon Deacons are deep, not only in the backfield, but out wide as well. Jaquarii Roberson headlines the receiving corps, but A.T. Perry and Taylor Morin are both excellent complements. Perry is a big (6'5") target and leads the team with four touchdown catches. Morin is more of a possession receiver but has a history of making big plays in the return game. The offensive line headlined by tackle Zach Tom has quietly been one of the ACC's best. In the conference, only Boston College has surrendered fewer sacks.
The biggest reason for Syracuse's turnaround this season has been the play of its defense. The Orange are yielding fewer yards per game than any team in the ACC and allow less than 21 points per contest. Where Syracuse excels is rushing the passer. With 20 sacks on the season, the Orange lead the ACC and rank second nationally. Cody Roscoe is tied for the conference lead with 5.5 sacks. The Orange have six different players with at least 1.5 sacks this season.
Marlowe Wax and leading tackler Mikel Jones headline a stellar corps of linebackers. Jones' 47 total tackles rank third in the ACC. Freshman Stefon Thompson ranks second in the conference with a pair of forced fumbles. The pass rush has certainly helped, but Syracuse has done well in coverage too. The Orange are No. 1 in the conference in passing defense (168.6 ypg) and only Virginia Tech allows fewer yards per pass attempt. Darian Chestnut has both interceptions for the Syracuse defense this season.
When Syracuse Has the Ball
There's little secret as to what Syracuse will try to do offensively on Saturday. The Orange want to run the ball early and often. Against a good Florida State rush defense last week, Syracuse finished with 239 yards on the ground. Running back Sean Tucker ranks second in the ACC in rushing with 638 yards — one fewer than Duke's Mataeo Durant — and third nationally in yards from scrimmage. With nine catches for 175 yards, he's also the leading receiver for the Orange.
The ground game has received a boost since Garrett Shrader was inserted into the lineup at quarterback. Shrader had a monster day on the ground last week against Florida State, going for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 16 carries. Tucker and Shrader are tied for third in the ACC with seven rushing touchdowns apiece. The Orange do not throw the ball well. With Tucker as the leading receiver and Taj Harris entering the transfer portal, there really isn't a go-to guy at wide receiver. Courtney Jackson had a solid day last week with six catches for 57 yards. Like Wake, Syracuse has a sneaky-good offensive line headlined by redshirt senior center Airon Servais.
Prior to last week's contest against an explosive Louisville offense, Wake Forest had not allowed more than 17 points in any game. On defense, the Demon Deacons do a lot of bending but rarely break. They don't even rank in the top 10 in the ACC in total defense but allow just 18.2 points per contest. Like Syracuse, Wake Forest has excelled at rushing the passer this season. Luiji Vilain, a defensive end, ranks third in the ACC with 4.5 sacks.
One of the bigger reasons for Wake Forest's success at keeping opponents off the scoreboard has been its ability to force turnovers. Through five games, Wake Forest has taken the ball away an ACC-best 13 times — five more than the next closest team. Traveon Redd and Caelen Carson each have two interceptions for the Demon Deacons this season while linebacker Ryan Smenda Jr. leads the team with a pair of forced fumbles. Ja'Sir Taylor and Nasir Greer are both solid for the Wake secondary, but Syracuse would prefer not to throw often. Linebacker Luke Masterson is the leading tackle for the Demon Deacons.
Having the Carrier Dome crowd should provide a nice boost to Syracuse in this one, but when all is said and done, Wake Forest is a more complete team and does not beat itself. Shrader, Tucker, and the Orange offense should be able to move the ball between the 20s, but Wake is exceptional at keeping teams out of the end zone. The Demon Deacons have a clear advantage in the passing game and that could be a big factor. If this one comes down to a field goal, both Sciba and Syracuse's Andre Szmyt are very good placekickers.
Prediction: Wake Forest 31, Syracuse 20
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— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.