The Louisville Cardinals will close out what has been a disappointing season by hosting the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Saturday. The Cardinals were projected as the No. 2 team in the ACC Atlantic coming into the season, but at 2-7 in the league (and 3-7 overall), they are 12th in the revamped ACC. Right from the get-go, Louisville didn’t look like one of the league’s top teams and key opt-outs in recent weeks have hindered the Cardinals even more.
The last time we saw Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3 ACC), they were scoring 53 points in a losing effort against North Carolina. COVID-19 problems then popped up and the Demon Deacons had two games scrapped. For much of the season, Wake was expecting to play Notre Dame this weekend but when the ACC shuffled games around last week, Louisville became the opponent.
The Atlantic Division rivals have played seven times, all since 2006, with Louisville holding a 5-2 edge.
Wake Forest at Louisville
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 12 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: Louisville -2
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
In Wake’s second game of the season, on the last play of the third quarter, running back Christian Beal-Smith fumbled and the ball was recovered by NC State. That is Wake Forest’s only turnover in their seven games of 2020. The Demon Deacons also are third in the ACC in penalty yardage per game, so this is clearly a team that makes up for their lack of true offensive game-breakers by doing the little things correctly.
Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker are a more than solid running back duo, but it is quarterback Sam Hartman that leads this offense. Hartman has obviously not thrown an interception and he is averaging 8.6 yards per attempt on the season. Head coach Dave Clawson’s team has always played at a fast tempo and this season their 75.8 plays per game rank second in the ACC behind Clemson despite being 11th in time of possession.
Coming into the season, most of Louisville’s concerns were on the defensive side of the ball. However, the Cardinals are currently fifth in the ACC in total and scoring defense. In their most recent contest, though, Boston College quarterbacks Phil Jurkovec and Dennis Grosel combined to complete 73 percent of their pass attempts while an Eagle running game that had been averaging less than 100 yards per game went for 188. The question is, was this game an aberration for a solid defensive unit, or is it a sign that the Louisville defenders just want this season to end?
When Louisville Has the Ball
Even though Javian Hawkins opted out nearly a month ago, the strength of the Louisville offense is still their ground game. It has certainly changed, though. The Cardinals now get most of their rushing yardage from quarterback Malik Cunningham and less from the tailback. Cunningham ran for 199 yards against Virginia and 133 more versus Boston College.
But there have been some major offensive issues. As good as Wake Forest has been at holding onto the ball, Louisville has been that bad. If not for Duke’s outrageous turnover problems, the Cards would have the most giveaways in the nation. Their minus-14 turnover margin also is only better than Duke’s. Cunningham’s 12 interceptions are part of the problem but so are the same number of lost fumbles. Louisville has not won the turnover battle in any game this season.
Along with their offensive efficiency, Wake Forest’s defense is third in the ACC in forced turnovers per game. Freshman Nick Anderson has three of the team’s 12 interceptions. Interestingly, Wake is not a team that is at the top of the league in sacks or tackles for lost yardage, so the interceptions aren’t necessarily all the result of pressures. The Cardinals will have to keep an eye out for end Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr., a first-round NFL talent that can cause havoc in the opponent’s backfield.
At 4-3, Wake Forest still harbors hopes of a bowl appearance. With several bowls with ACC tie-ins canceled, winning this week and next Saturday against Florida State may be needed to qualify. For Louisville, this is the end of the journey and head coach Scott Satterfield’s bizarre statements explaining his flirtation with the South Carolina job seems like a fitting end. This game could also be the final collegiate outing for star receiver Tutu Atwell, a junior that could declare for the NFL draft. If Louisville is going to win this contest, Atwell will have to be a factor. A Wake Forest defense that doesn’t allow many big plays — with the exception of that day in Chapel Hill — will make that difficult, though. One great unknown is how the Demon Deacons will respond after not suiting up in nearly a month. Expect them to be rusty at the start and that may be just enough for Louisville. On Senior Day, the Cardinals put forth a great effort, finally take care of the ball, and come away with a close victory.
Prediction: Louisville 34, Wake Forest 30
Podcast: CFB Rankings, Coaching Changes and Week 15 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.