Total team effort sees Wolfpack past Wake Forest

NC State has turned around its season with a true freshman quarterback

North Carolina State's MJ Morris (16) waits for explanation of a pre snap penalty with Wake Forest's Jasheen Davis (30) nearby during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — After getting his shot in a comeback win last week, MJ Morris proved he was ready for the full spotlight on Saturday.

The true freshman quarterback — the first to start for NC State since Philip Rivers in 2000 — led the 21st-ranked Wolfpack to a 30-21 win over No. 20 Wake Forest at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Morris, who had three touchdown passes in the Wolfpack’s 22-21 come-from-behind win over Virginia Tech a week ago,  completed 18 of 28 passes for 203 yards, three touchdown passes and 43 rushing yards. The win was the 16th straight at home for NC State (7-2, 3-2 ACC)

“You couldn’t ask for anything more,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren of Morris. “A true freshman quarterback just beat Sam Hartman. Sam’s a great player for Wake who’s been playing for a long time, so for a true freshman to be able to lead a team over their quarterback. … Those were two great quarterbacks that were on the field, but he’s done it in practice and he’s done it in games. He’s got the players playing hard for him and they believe in him. He’s really ahead of where we probably thought he’d be at this point of his career.”

Hartman was 29-of-48 passing for 397 yards and two touchdowns, but his three interceptions — compared to Morris’ zero turnovers — proved costly.

While the Wolfpack offense may have finally found its footing with Morris at the helm, the defense continued to rise to the occasion. NC State forced three turnovers and stuffed the Demon Deacons on a first quarter goal-line stand that changed the complexion of the game.

“When they got down to the 1 and we knocked them back, knocked them back and knocked them back again and then they missed the field goal, that was a huge moment in the game,” Doeren said of the stop. “It showed a lot of resiliency and toughness and grit, and that’s what we’re made of.”

The Wolfpack defense bent but didn’t break in the face of the high-octane Wake Forest offense.

“Wake’s been a team that’s been a headache for a lot of us that’s been here for five or six years, so to get a big win over them is huge,” said graduate linebacker Isaiah Moore. “As a defense, I think we had given up 87 points to them over the last two years, so we really took this game personally. So to hold them to 21 really meant a lot to us.”

On the offensive side of the ball, things started off slow for Morris as the Wolfpack offense ran several screen passes and QB draws before Morris was finally given the green light for a deep ball.

Facing a third-and-long after a Wake Forest touchdown early in the second quarter, Morris connected with junior receiver Keyon Lesane for a 44-yard reception. Junior running back Jordan Houston followed that up for a 16-yard run, and then Morris again found Lesane, threading a pass for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

After that first touchdown, NC State’s offense started rolling. 

Houston, Morris and freshman running back Michael Allen picked up critical yards on the ground, and Morris was given more leash in the passing game. 

On NC State’s second touchdown, Morris patiently rolled out of the pocket and kept the play alive long enough to find graduate receiver Darryl Jones cutting across the end zone.

“I was behind everybody and I saw him roll out and so I just ran,” Jones said. “I knew he was going to see me, and I was just thinking about nothing else but running.”

While the NC State offense and defense did their part, graduate kicker Christopher Dunn continued to be the Wolfpack’s most reliable weapon. 

Dunn made three field goals, including a 51-yarder, and three extra points and is now just 13 points shy of tying the ACC scoring record and one field goal shy of tying the conference record for most career field goals.

“I’ve lived the other side of [kicking],” Doeren said. “So for me, it’s an incredible luxury to have Chris Dunn, and I’m so happy for him. He’s been through a lot, and to have the year he’s having is why he came back for this extra season, to be the best kicker in college football. And that’s what he is right now, and nobody has one better than we do.”

In the end, the Deacons (6-3, 2-3 ACC) couldn’t make up for NC State executing in all three facets of the game.

“It’s a team effort at the end of the day,” Morris said. “As long as we all do our jobs. The defense did great, the offense did great and special teams played outstanding. It just takes everybody doing their jobs and taking it one play at a time. Nothing too special.

“Even if things don’t go our way, it’s just all about the next play. That next play is going to be our best play. That’s really the mindset you’ve gotta have.”