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Finding the secret to Wake Forest's success

Wake Forest is 4-0 for the first time since 2006, when the Demon Deacons won the ACC.

Let that sink in for a second.

Most prognosticators assumed Wake would be improved this year, but who could’ve predicted 4-0? This is a team that was just 6-18 in its first two seasons under Dave Clawson, a team that produced a historically bad offense in 2014, a team that earned three of its first seven wins under Clawson by scoring seven points or fewer. And here they are, the 4-0 Deacons.

So, how’d it happen?

The obvious guess would be that, after three years in Clawson’s system, the team is simply performing better all around. There’s probably some truth to that in terms of the overall talent on the field, but the underlying stats are actually surprisingly similar to a year ago.

Through four games in 2015, Wake averaged 5.58 yards per play. This year, it’s averaging just 4.88 yards per play.

Last year, Wake scored on 33 percent of its drives in its first four games, while this year, it’s scoring on 31 percent.

Last year, the ground game -- ignoring sacks -- averaged 4.82 yards per carry in its first four games. This year, 4.51.

Through four games a year ago, the Deacons had 25 plays of 20 yards or more. This year, just 12.

Indeed, it actually appears that Wake’s offense is worse this year than last (though considering the opposition, that’s probably not an entirely apples-to-apples comparison).

So if the offense isn’t better, the secret must be the defense, right?

Again, we see pretty similar results across the board, with last year’s D allowing 1.33 points per drive and this year’s allowing 1.29.

Instead, the secret to Wake’s success is actually in fulfilling the usual coaching cliche: Turnovers and rushing.

But wait, didn’t we say the ground game was worse this year?

Yes, on average, that’s true. But the interesting thing is that Clawson has actually relied on that ground game far more than he did a year ago, which has had a ripple effect throughout the offense. Through four games a year ago, 64 percent of Wake’s offensive plays were dropbacks by the quarterback (pass, sack or scramble). This year, that rate is just 39.5 percent. In other words, the Deacons are running the ball about 40 percent more often than they did through four games a year ago.

The results are threefold:

1.) The Deacons are controlling the tempo of the game, keeping their defense off the field for more time.

2.) Wake has far fewer wasted plays. Just 31 percent are going for a loss or no gain, while last year that rate was 39 percent. That’s translated to more manageable third-down situations.

3.) Fewer passing plays means fewer chances for the QBs to throw picks, and in turn, Wake is committing fewer turnovers.

And that’s the other big change from last year. At this point in 2015, Wake had a turnover margin of minus-7 and opponents had scored 31 more points off turnovers than Wake had. This year, the Deacons are plus-5 in turnover margin and plus-10 in points off turnovers.

Add that up and it means turnovers are directly responsible for 41 additional points for Wake Forest this season through four games -- or about 10 points per game. Ten points per game is the difference between Wake being 6-18 in Clawson’s first two seasons and being 13-11.

So the good news is that Wake is 4-0 against a tougher schedule than a year ago and still has plenty of room to improve. The bad news is that turnover margins are a notoriously unpredictable metric, and sustaining success in that department can be tough.

But let’s assume starting quarterback Kendall Hinton comes back soon from a knee injury, the ground game keeps getting better, and the big plays follow more consistently. That would certainly be enough to overcome a regression toward the mean in turnovers, and it’s an entirely reasonable goal for this Wake team moving forward.