By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
Today’s game at a glance
Where: LP Field (68,798), Nashville
Kickoff: 5:40 p.m. Television: ESPN/ESPN3.com
Radio: MSU Network; XM 91; Sirius 91.
Records: MSU 6-6, Wake Forest 6-6.
Keys for victory
1. Test Wake’s strength.
Wake Forest has a smallish defense, with nose tackle Nikita Whitlock checking in at 5-foot-11, 260 pounds. The defensive ends have good size – Tristan Dorty is 6-2, 255, while Zach Thompson is 6-5, 255.
The linebackers are a little undersized, and the Demon Deacons allow an average of 162.9 rushing yards per game, which ranks 70th in the country. With MSU’s big offensive line – its starters average 303 pounds – paving the way for punishing runners like QB Chris Relf and tailback Vick Ballard, Wake Forest will have to engage in a very physical battle for four quarters.
The ACC doesn’t have a reputation for physical play, so Wake must either disprove that or overcome it with speed.
2. Rein in Givens.
Wake Forest has one of the ACC’s most potent passing attacks, led by sophomore Tanner Price. He’s thrown 20 touchdowns against six interceptions and has become a solid decision-maker.
Receiver Chris Givens is the biggest weapon for that offense. The junior has caught 74 passes for a school-record 1,276 yards and nine touchdowns.
Givens (6-0, 195) owns seven 100-yard games this season.
3. Beware Josh Bush.
When MSU does pass, it better know where Josh Bush is lurking. The senior free safety has six interceptions – tied for sixth nationally – to go with 10 passes defended and 56 tackles. He had two picks against Notre Dame.
Relf, who might well play the whole game with a banged-up Tyler Russell on the sideline, has thrown seven interceptions in 171 pass attempts – four of those picks were made by safeties.
What to watch for
When MSU has the ball
Relf is starting and will likely finish the game. Coach Dan Mullen has hinted strongly that Russell, who has a sprained MCL in his left knee, won’t play unless absolutely necessary.
Relf might be a better matchup anyway. He punished the Ole Miss defense with his legs last time out and could do the same against Wake Forest, which doesn’t see a lot of big running QBs in the ACC. Throw 1,000-yard rusher Vick Ballard into the mix, and the Demon Deacons will have their hands full.
While he hasn’t been great throwing the ball this year, Relf is coming off a nice Egg Bowl in which he had two touchdown passes. In last year’s Gator Bowl, he had three TD tosses and won MVP honors.
When Wake Forest has the ball
The Deacs are an unapologetic pass-first offense. Price, who already has 21 career starts under his belt, has passed for 2,803 yards. That’s the strength of the personnel, and so that’s what coach Jim Grobe has gone with this year.
Price is a left-hander, so that could present a challenge for MSU’s pass rushers. When it runs, Wake leans on senior Brandon Pendergrass, who’s rushed for 756 yards and has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in two of his last three games.
Wake is strong in the red zone, having scored on 41 of 49 trips, including 26 touchdowns.
MSU offensive line vs. Wake Forest front seven
If MSU can “get a helmet” on the Wake defenders, to use offensive coordinator Les Koenning’s words, it should be able to overpower them. The Bulldogs will likely try to establish the run early and often, and that’s when this offense is at its most effective.
But the Deacs don’t have much of a pass rush – they’re last in the ACC with 10 sacks – so Relf should have time to sit back and find receivers when he has to. State has allowed 24 sacks, fifth-fewest in the SEC.