WINSTON-SALEM — This was supposed to be a special season for the NC State football team.
As it turns out, it does still have the potential to be special.
Just not for the Wolfpack.
Instead, it’s Wake Forest that seems to have everything falling into place for it as it continues its upward mobility under fourth-year coach Dave Clawson.
The margin between victory and defeat was slim. Just a couple of inches, to be exact. But that’s all it took for the Deacons to come away with a 30-24 victory against the Wolfpack at BB&T Field on Saturday in a game that will likely define the seasons of both in-state rivals.
“When two really good football teams play a game like that, it’s going to be a game of inches,” Clawson said after his 7-4 (4-3 ACC) team matched its win total from last season with two games still left to play. “We are very fortunate to be on the right side of that. God’s been with the Deacs this year in a lot of ways and we feel very blessed that our kids keep playing hard and keep battling.”
The most graphic example of that fighting spirit came on the play that essentially decided the game. It happened with just under two minutes remaining and Wake clinching to a six-point lead.
On a first down play from the Deacons 11, State quarterback Ryan Finley completed a pass to freshman receiver Emeka Emezie along the near sideline.
The young receiver, who scored his first career touchdown earlier in the second half, put a move on his defender and appeared headed into the end zone. But as he reached the ball out in an attempt to score, Wake rover Demetrius Kemp came in from behind and jarred the ball loose just before Emezie broke the plane of the goal line.
Kemp then stayed and pursued the ball into the end zone and recovered it for a touchback that preserved the lead and eventually the game.
“That was just a pure hustle play,” Kemp said. “I was all the way in the box. I saw the quarterback throw and I just burst to the ball. That’s something we preach every week, every day. Giving up is something we don’t believe in.”
The same could be said for the Wolfpack, since it was Emezie’s extra effort on the play and his desire to get into the end zone is what ended up getting him in trouble.
“You know he’s broken-hearted as you’d expect him to be,” State coach Dave Doeren said. “It’s obviously not intentional, but he didn’t have good ball security as he was swinging it going in. He’ll learn from it, but it’s too bad, because that would have been the play that put us up by one.”
State (7-4, 5-2) actually got another chance to pull the game out when it forced Wake to punt with 41 seconds remaining. But a bad decision by Finley, throwing short over the middle with no timeouts remaining, cost precious seconds and his final throw was intercepted in the end zone by Essang Bassey to seal the deal.
Finley finished the game by going 34 of 52 for 327 yards and a touchdown. Despite being forced to throw more than usual because of an injury that sidelined leading rusher Nyheim Hines early in the third quarter, the Wolfpack still managed to outgain the Deacons 502-334 and roll up an incredible advantage in time of possession.
State held the ball for 41:07 compared to just 18:53 for Wake, the second-lowest time of possession in its school history.
The reason that disparity didn’t matter was the quick-strike capability of the Deacons’ suddenly potent offense.
With John Wolford throwing for 247 yards and three touchdowns, Wake picked up where it left off last week when it used a second-half blitz to score 64 points in a come-from-behind win at Syracuse.
The Deacons scored the first two times they had the ball and made it look easy — driving 64 yards on five plays for a Matt Colburn rushing touchdown, then going 67 yards on nine plays with Wolford hitting Tabari Hines for the first of his three scoring catches.
Even though Wake was forced to punt on its next series, ending a streak of 10 straight possessions in which it put points on the scoreboard, it bounced right back to score again the next time it got the ball.
State managed to keep pace in more methodical fashion, staying within 21-14 at halftime, then tying the game on Emezie’s 11-yard touchdown catch on its first possession of the second half.
But while the Wolfpack’s defense managed to adjust and hold Wake to just a field goal in the third quarter, the Deacons got their groove back for one more decisive drive, on which Hines barely kept his foot in bounds for the go-ahead touchdown.
“We hit a little lull there,” Wolford said. “I was missing a few throws because my hand was hurting a little (but) we were able to push through it.
“They were giving us a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter and we have a lot of senior on our offense, a lot of upperclassmen. That’s what you have to do, step up and we did it.”