The Deacs outlast the Wolfpack 45-42
Preview: #16 North Carolina State Wolfpack (7-2, 4-1) vs the #12 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-1, 5-0)
Tonight's game between the #16 North Carolina State Wolfpack (7-2, 4-1) and #12 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (8-1, 5-0) is more than just another edition of a heated Tobacco Road Rivalry, let alone Senior Night for a graduating class of Deacons used to playing in the postseason (6th consecutive season of being bowl eligible).
There's more riding on tonight's primetime (7:30pm EST kickoff) showdown, as the winner of the game would have the inside track on the ACC Atlantic Division. A win for Wake gives them a potential 2 game lead with 2 games left to play, while a win for NC State gives them the all-important tiebreaker against both Wake and Clemson (who enters today's action with a 5-2 division/conference record).
NC State comes in winning 6 of their last 7 (and could have had a 7 game winning streak if not for a 31-30 loss to Miami). The Wolfpack offense come in averaging 31.1 points per game thanks to the play of quarterback Devin Leary (2475 passing yards and an outstanding 25 passing touchdowns with only 3 interceptions). The running game, paced by Zonovan Knight (617 rushing yards/5.2 yards per carry) and Ricky Person, Jr (487 rushing yards/4.7 yards per carry) looks to take advantage of a Deacon defense coming off a 58-55 loss to North Carolina where they allowed slightly more than 6 yards per carry. The defense can be described as stingy, as they allow a meager 16 points per game. Middle linebacker Drake Thomas is someone to keep an eye on, as his team leading 74 tackles and 4 sacks make him a menacing presence the Deacs must account for. Combined with allowing 320 yards on defense, this arguably may be the toughest defense Wake Forest is facing at this point in the season.
Coming off a tough 3 point loss to one of their rivals, the Deacs continue their "Tobacco Road" tour as this is their 3rd consecutive game against an in-state rival. Quarterback Sam Hartman (2873 passing yards along with 27 passing touchdowns and 5 interceptions) may be among the players asked to step up in the running game (coming off a 12 carry/78 yards/2 touchdown performance against the Tar Heels). With leading rusher Christian Beal-Smith potentially unavailable due to an injury in their previous game (533 rushing yards/averaging 5.0 yards per carry/7 touchdowns), Justice Ellison (averaging 5.5 yards per carry) and Christian Turner (averaging 4.5 yards per carry) may be expected to doing more in the running game. Receivers Jaquarii Roberson (848 receiving yards/17.0 yards per catch/8 touchdowns) and AT Perry (845 receiving yards/20.1 yards per catch/10 touchdowns) form one of the more dominant receiving tandems in the country. On defense, linebackers Ryan Smenda (54 tackles) and Luke Masterson (50 tackles/2.5 sacks) are looking to lead a defense in a solid "bounce-back" effort.
First half highlights
NC State gets on the board at the 11:25 mark of the 1st quarter. Setup by a 54 yard reception by Devin Carter, a 28 yard field goal by Christopher Dunn gives the Wolfpack an early 3-0 lead. Wake Forest would strike back at the 7:45 mark of the quarter as AT Perry's 24 yard touchdown reception gives the Deacs a 7-3 lead. After the Wolfpack respond with another Dunn field goal prior to the end of the 1st quarter to cut the lead to 7-6, the Deacons' offense responds. Ke'Shawn Williams' 34 yard reception sets up a 1 yard touchdown plunge by running back Justice Ellison (14:34 in the 2nd quarter) to take a 14-6 lead.
Both defenses would match each other as an interception by Wake's JJ Roberts is matched on the very next play by NC State's Shyheim Battle, keeping both offenses at bay. However, a late fumble force and recovery by Traveon Redd is returned to the NC State 3 yard line, and quarterback Sam Hartman scrambles for a touchdown run to give Wake a 21-6 lead with 2:05 left in the 2nd quarter.
NC State immediately responds with a 72 yard kickoff return by Zonovan Knight; one play later, Emeka Emezie's 28 yard touchdown reception brings the Pack back within a touchdown (21-13). And just before the end of the half, Devin Carter's 21 yard touchdown reception closes the gap to 21-20 (with 28 seconds left in the half). Not to be outdone, a late field goal by the Deacs' Nick Sciba (offsetting his 53 yard miss earlier in the quarter) gives Wake a 24-20 edge going into the half.
Second half highlights
Zonovan Knight gets things started for the Wolfpack on the opening kickoff as he races for a 100 yard touchdown return, giving the Pack their first lead of the game (27-24). Wake would respond thanks to a key 4th down reception by Donald Stewart which would later setup a 5 yard touchdown grab by Brandon Chapman to retake the lead at the 11:07 mark (31-27).
After an interception exchange between Wake's Nick Andersen and NC State's Tyler Baker-Williams, it appears the game reaches a turning point as the Wolfpack's Shyheim Battle is ejected from the game for targeting. However, NC State forces its 3rd turnover of the game with an interception in the end zone by Derrek Pitts, Jr.
After a stand by Wake's defense, a 35 yard punt return by Taylor Morin puts the offense in NC State territory. On a gutty misdirection 4 yard scoring pass to Justice Ellison, Wake gets a little breathing room at the 10:05 mark (38-27). The breathing room is more like an abbreviate breath as NC State marches downfield and closes out their scoring drive with a 13 yard touchdown reception by Emeka Emezie (and he would add a 2 point conversion), making it a 38-35 game with 8:07 left in the game.
A pass interference penalty by the Wolfpack's Chris Ingram keeps the subsequent drive by the Deacs going. As a result, Justice Ellison closes out an important scoring drive (1:47 left in the 4th quarter) with his 3rd touchdown of the game (a W4 yard touchdown run) to give Wake a 45-35 lead. Yet again, NC State responds with a touchdown reception by Devin Carter (45 seconds left in the 4th quarter) to make it 45-42 game.
While it appears NC State recovers the onside kick, it is ruled an illegal touching penalty (as the player touches the ball before it goes the minimum 10 yards); Wake closes out with a 3 point win in a 4-plus hour thriller in Winston-Salem.
Postgame: The #12 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-1, 6-0) win 45-42 over #16 NC State (7-3, 4-2)
Wake shows improvement in their run defense, as they allow 4.1 yards per carry (on 18 carries). Likewise, they show improved team discipline as they commit 5 penalties for 50 yards (compared to NC State's 14 penalties for 119 yards); however, the targeting penalty on Ryan Smenda could play a role in their upcoming game. While their running attack averages 2.6 yards per carry on 44 attempts (as Christian Beal-Smith is inactive for the game due to injury), it does help them win the time of possession battle (31:40 to 28:20) .
Sam Hartman grinds out 290 passing yards despite throwing 3 interceptions. He does contribute 3 rushing touchdowns along with 43 rushing yards and a touchdown. Justice Ellison's 3 touchdowns (2 rushing and 1 receiving) along with offensive contributions from AT Perry (73 receiving yards and 1 touchdown), Donald Stewart (51 receiving yards), and Taylor Morin (44 yards receiving and 78 return yards on kickoffs and punt returns) pace the Deacs' offense. NC State's Devin Leary (408 passing yards with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions) leads the team with their second highest scoring output of the season. Emeka Emezie (133 receiving yards with 2 touchdowns) and Devin Carter (132 yards with 2 touchdowns) provide sound play in the closely contested game.
Wake is essentially in control of their proverbial postseason destiny. Undefeated in conference play, if they split their last 2 games, they should be the Atlantic Division Champions and make their way to the ACC Championship Game. NC State would have to win out and get some help (from Clemson and Boston College, Wake's last 2 opponents) for any chance of playing for the conference championship.
NC State's next game is November 20th as they host Syracuse. Concluding their home season (and Senior Night), Wake travels to Death Valley on November 20th for a high noon showdown against Clemson.
In the postgame press conference, Coach Clawson notes despite the team not having their sharpest performance (due to the turnovers, special teams play, and overall stats in the running game), the ability to continue to battle, especially during their final scoring drive, is key to defeating a soundly coached and talented NC State team. Donald Stewart notes (per our question) they'll focus on seeing what items to clean up in addition to preparing for next Saturday's game against Clemson. Quarterback Sam Hartman speaks to the team's resiliency as a hallmark for the team's ability to win a challenging game and keep their season aspirations intact.
Notes: All photos credited to EmoryRose Photography. The postgame video (press conference) is via Wake Forest Sports.
Top row: AT Perry hauls in an early touchdown, and Deacon Nation is well represented at the last home game of the season.
Second row from top: Senior Nick Sciba and Ja'Sir Taylor make their way to the field for the last time (Senior Night).
Second row from bottom: Dylen Hazen (50) and Cameron Hite (20) enter the field; receiver Jaquarii Roberson makes his way to the field for senior introductions.
Bottom row: Running back Justice Ellison is focused during warmups (as his 3 touchdowns are key to the Deacs' win); Sam Hartman (10) makes his way against the NC State defense.