They’re not partying like it’s 1944 in Winston Salem. Yes, Wake Forest is 6-0 for the first time since the penultimate year of WWII. Yes, they are the last undefeated ACC team in a year of intense rotation within the league. But head coach Dave Clawson cautions they’ve been here before, even recently after a 5-0 start in 2019 soured to an 8-5 finish. The constant throughout his tenure has been the offense (dubbed Clawfense) and his unique, anxiety-inducing backfield swap between the quarterback and running back.
Once you know what you are looking for, it is difficult not see the action. An elongated mesh point that makes those two appear to inhabit their own space-time continuum in the middle of 20 other bodies. But it’s just one, albeit important, part of Wake’s broader offensive system, one that throughout Week 7 is scoring the 12th most points per game of anyone in the country.
“We have a running game of varying tempo,” said Deacons offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero. Illustrated Sports. “Some things happen very fast. Some things happen somewhere in the middle and others happen very slowly. The only thing that happens slowly, everyone looks and says oh my gosh, and that’s why they love to talk about it. “
Tempo is one of the biggest buzzwords in today’s soccer strategy. Some teams huddle while others don’t. Some teams rush to the line of scrimmage to make plays 12-15 seconds apart, while others rush and wait in preparation and checking the sideline for an audible sound. But much of the tempo discourse focuses on what happens before the ball breaks. What’s interesting about Wake is how the tempo varies once the play starts.
Ruggiero has been with head coach Dave Clawson since 2009 when they were at Bowling Green. They came to Winston-Salem in 2014 and have built a stable bowl team on a program that had hit rock bottom after the heights of the 2006 conference title season. What started as dabbling in the career pass option became turned into a specialization over the years at Wake to the point where Clawson told a training clinic that “our entire system is based on RPO.” Now it’s basically all they run, and Clawson is quick to put off the applause about who really is the mastermind behind the operation despite Clawfense’s nickname.
“We did some RPO stuff in Bowling Green,” Clawson said. “There were some complementary RPO plays, but it wasn’t the bread and butter of what we did and we got here and I think in Wake Forest you have to be a little unconventional. Frankly, some of the things that worked for us at Bowling Green didn’t work for us here. I give Warren credit for evolving and changing things and adjusting the system to suit the skill set. ”
By the time they got to Wake and realized how talented they were, executing a classic throwback passing game was out of the picture. In its first three seasons, only one team in the country allowed more sacks; almost 10% of all drop-backs found their passersby on the grass. Ruggiero joked that by the time the quarterback took the third step of his downfall, the play would end up being a sack. Now, Clawson says half of his passing plays start out as runs, which makes things easier for the offensive line. Running blocking as much as possible can help level the playing field against some of the best pass rushers that the conference’s Clemsons, Florida States or Miamis can line up. They can’t just hit the first hit on what they assume will be a passing play because so much of what Wake does starts out as a run. The runs themselves have also come after more double-team blocks, which is easier for offensive linemen to execute.
The playbook is not encyclopedic. Some offenses choose to answer the questions that defenses pose with countless plays, while Wake Forest builds multiple responses in relatively few plays.
“I would say that what we do is very systematic like the triple option,” said Ruggiero. “They can just go out into the game and do nothing different that week in terms of the game plan, their offense is a game plan, where a lot of other offenses are fine, what is the defense doing? Let’s put this in this week and let’s put that in this week and try to change this on this route because they are doing that. We don’t do that. We run our system. ”
But what about the weirdness in that system? Ruggiero said it would take an hour to answer that question, but the running back has a lot of clues that vary depending on the lineup of the defense. The quarterback’s footwork is tied to that, too, and that’s how the timing of the play can change. The running back has to assume that the quarterback will get the ball out and throw it at any time, so he can’t catch the ball, the quarterback is in control. Actually reading what linebackers and safeties are doing can freeze your aggression, which is true for any offense that involves a reading element.
You can see here on a play against Syracuse just how passive he can force defenses to play, with linebackers seemingly waiting for something to happen and a defender flying into the box before quickly backing off once the quarterback throws the ball. All the indecision invites quarterback Sam Hartman to toss the ball and take a first try.
“There are not many teams that have tried to sit there and defend us in the same way year after year, it’s a bit strange,” said Ruggiero. “When you say ‘how have they adapted,’ I don’t know if I really have a great answer for that. It just changes a lot every year and every week the times that teams try and do it, I guess. “
The Wake staff feel that while executing, their offense has enough answers to always be right. Mid-season, that’s certainly the case. The Clawfense gets the job done, even if it’s pretty unique once you know what to look for.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.