Wake Forest vs. NC State: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Essang Bassey (21) of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons is tackled by Kelvin Harmon (3) of the North Carolina State Wolfpack intercepting a pass intended for Jakobi Meyers (11) late in the fourth quarter at BB&T Field on November 18, 2017 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Demon Deacons defeated the Wolfpack 30-24. (Brian Westerholt/Sports On Film)

On Saturday, Wake Forest (7-4) secured their seventh win of the season in an upset of the 25th ranked NC State Wolfpack. Their 30-24 win over the in-state rivals served as an exclamation point on a season where the Demon Deacons have shown that they’re no doormat in the ACC. Let’s break down the win.

The Good: Deacon Offensive Gameplan

It is becoming more and more apparent every week that this is not the Deacon offense of old. The 2017 squad now sits pretty with 7 wins and is the highest scoring team in school history. The days of watching inept draw plays up the middle for negative yardage feels decades past. On Saturday against NC State, the offensive onslaught continued. The Wolfpack defense was completely helpless to stop Wake’s read-option based attack as the Demon Deacons racked up 330 yards of offense. Although paling in comparison to NC State’s 500 offensive yards, it’s even more miraculous when you consider Wake Forest only had possession of the ball for 18 minutes, less than one-third of the total game. Through the air, John Wolford (247 yards, 3 TD’s) and receiver Tabari Hines made it look easy, as Hines reeled in 8 catches for 139 yards and 3 touchdowns by the end of the day. The ground game wasn’t spectacular, but it didn’t have to be. Wolford’s ability to run and a commitment to feeding running backs the ball kept the Wolfpack defense honest and opened up space for a lethal play-action passing game. Wake has never looked more methodical this season, marching their way to an easy 30 points.

The Bad: Wake Defensive Backs

Now, this could be considered nit-picking, as in the last two minutes safety Demetrius Kemp made a beautiful play at the goal-line to stop a would-be go-ahead touchdown, and cornerback Essang Bassey secured the game-winning interception on NC State’s final Hail Mary. However, this doesn’t cover up what was at times a very spotty performance. The secondary, along with the rest of the defense, often failed to get the ball back to the offense when situationally they were put in spots to excel. A 2nd and 26 comes to mind where they were flagged for pass interference along with several 3rd and 10+ downs. Quarterback Ryan Finley attempted an absurd 52 pass attempts, racking up 327 yards by spreading the ball around to receivers Kevin Harmon, Jakobi Myers, and Emeka Emezie. In particular, Harmon was able to feast all night on comeback routes and crosses as he racked up eight receptions for over a hundred yards. Had Harmon not dropped multiple balls in the second half, one could argue the Deacons may not have been nursing a lead at the end of the game. Coach Clawson commented in his press conference that, “It’s a game of inches guys, it really is. There are so many plays, if Tabari is one foot to the right or the Hail Mary tips, they’re the ones celebrating.” This position group should feel very fortunate they caught the breaks that they needed towards the end of the game, or otherwise, the quad may not have been rolled.

The Ugly: True Freshman Learning Curve

The Ugly portion of this column goes out to a number of true freshmen that suited up at BB&T Saturday night. Playing college football, especially in a Power 5 conference such as the ACC, is a daunting task, and one that requires some acclimation from the high school game. Saturday night was an evident example of this. Defensively, NC State freshman nickel corner Chris Ingram was abused by the Wake Forest game plan. Ingram was asked to play significant snaps as he was tasked with covering Tabari Hines or whoever the Deacons lined up in the slot. The results? Hines had a career day and caught all three of John Wolford’s touchdown passes on the evening, as he frequently lost Ingram across the middle or over the top of the field. Even when Ingram wasn’t covering Hines, Wake QB John Wolford frequently targeted whoever he was covering and it led to some of their biggest offensive plays on the day. For the Deacons, freshmen cornerback Ja’Sir Taylor played often on third downs, and the Wolfpack certainly noticed. Harmon was able to beat him often on the outside, as Taylor struggled to keep up with the future NFL wide receiver. Meanwhile, on the offensive ball, these same freshmen struggles were even more pronounced by NC State wide receiver Emeka Emezie. Emezie actually had one of the best games of his young career, gathering 5 receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, all anyone is going to remember is his final reception. On what would have been the Wolfpacks go-ahead drive, Emezie caught the ball and was able to juke previously mentioned CB Ja’Sir Taylor but as he extended for the goal line, the ball was knocked out of his hands. Any hope that he had retained possession and crossed the goal line was erased with the instant-replay examination. A more experienced player may have been aware enough to realize he could fall into the end zone, but he wanted to win the game right out. Afterwards, Emezie could be seen visibly crying on the sideline. Now, these are all incredibly talented young players and the fact that they’re seeing this kind of playing time as eighteen-year-olds speaks to itself. However, despite the promise of better games ahead, their impact on the game cannot be denied. This writer certainly hopes that the struggles, and heartbreak, makes them all better players.

Next week the Duke Blue Devils come to town for Wake’s final regular season game. The Deacons have a chance to surpass their win total from last year while the Blue Devils (5-6) will be playing their hearts out trying to become bowl-eligible.

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