The time has come to separate the boys from the men. As expected, Vanderbilt took care of Elon Saturday evening to start 2-0 for the first time since 2018, also equaling their win total for the 2021 season. Although a couple of late scores from Elon made things a little interesting, the Commodores were never seriously threatened in the game. Credit Coach Clark Lea and his team for taking care of business to begin the season — by far the easiest portion of the schedule — by winning two games where they were rare favorites: Hawaii and Elon. Now, there are no more gimmies, starting with #22 Wake Forest coming to Nashville for an early 11am contest Saturday.
For the first time this year Coach Lea will have game film on his opponent, but it’s difficult to know how much you can take away from Wake Forest’s 44-10 season-opening blowout over VMI — especially with the news Tuesday that star quarterback Sam Hartman was cleared to return to game action.
The Demon Deacons are coming off an outstanding 11-3 season, winning the ACC Atlantic Division, largely on the shoulders of a prolific offense led by Hartman. After bypassing the NFL Draft to return to Wake Forest, it was announced before the season Hartman would be out indefinitely while receiving treatment for a non-football related medical condition which was later reported to be Paget-Schroetter Syndrome – which for you non-doctors out there like myself is apparently a type of blood clot. In typical Vanderbilt timing and luck, he has miraculously recovered in time to play the Commodores which will make the contest that much more difficult.
Hartman returns with several other starters from an offense that was 11th in the nation in total offense, and 4th in scoring offense last year. Redshirt freshman QB Mitch Griffis filled in capably for in his absence to open the season, finishing 21 of 29 for 288 yards and 3 touchdowns, but is unlikely to see action with Hartman’s return. In front of Hartman are four returning starters on the offensive line. They also return three of their top four receivers from a year ago, including top target A.T Perry.
Griffis spread the ball out in the opener, with 10 different players catching his 21 completions. The Demon Deacons also return two experienced running backs from last year who both run effectively: Christian Turner, who had 13 carries for 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in the opener, and Justice Ellison who had 13 carries for 80 yards. As a team, Wake finished with 508 yards of total offense against VMI.
Despite Wake’s success in the 2021 season, defense was not a strength – particularly against the run. The Demon Deacons 4-2-5 scheme finished 91st overall in total defense, giving up 29 points per game and an abysmal 195 rushing yards per game. That unit certainly looked improved in their first game this season, but again it’s hard to know how much considering the competition. VMI finished with 222 total yards, and only 83 on the ground. Richmond transfer defensive lineman Kobie Turner led the team in tackles with 6, while fellow defensive lineman Kendron Wayman and 1.5 sacks.
One could argue this is the biggest game of the Lea’s brief coaching tenure. With the 2-0 start there is a general air of positivity surrounding the program, yet still that lingering sense of “yeah, but…” Knocking off a ranked opponent would make a huge statement, bring legitimacy to Lea and his team, and provide a huge boost to the program in so many ways. The early starting time is unfortunate, as the home team could use a great atmosphere at FirstBank Stadium. Even if Hartman wasn’t playing, beating the Demon Deacons would be a tall order. With him back in the lineup few are giving the Commodores a chance to even make it a competitive game. Hopefully, Mike Wright turns into Superman once again, and the leaky defense we saw in the second half of the Elon game will be fixed, giving the Dores a chance at a potential program-changing win…