BLACKSBURG, VA – In its sixth game of the season, Wake Forest was looking for a spark to reignite its season. Two key opportunities presented themselves, yet the Deacons couldn’t strike against Virginia Tech, leading to their third-straight loss of the season, 30-13.
Wake Forest’s third possession of the game was its best to that point, gaining 42 yards and nearly entering Hokie territory. But on third-and-11, quarterback Mitch Griffis was intercepted along the sideline on an ill-advised pass. Griffis was benched in favor of backup Michael Kern, and wouldn’t return until Kern was injured on the final drive, with the game already decided.
“Going into the game, to me, Mitch was the starter,” head coach Dave Clawson said. “He made a few plays that were just mental [errors]. He just wasn’t executing the offense. I thought our football team needed a spark. I thought, we’re six games into it. It’s time I give Michael Kern a shot.”
“We have two great quarterbacks,” Taylor Morin later added. “[Michael] showed the ability to run the offense well. It’s tough to see Mitch down a little bit. We got to stay around him.”
In his first true drive of the 2023 season, Kern had Wake Forest marching down the field, highlighted by two completions of 10 and 16 yards. One play later, a missed pass block by running back Demond Claiborne left a rusher free for a strip sack, promptly ending the opportunity for points.
Wake Forest’s fourth-quarter hopes of getting back into the game would also crumble at the hands of a breakdown in pass protection. Kern completed three passes to advance the Deacons into Virginia Tech territory, but a rusher getting by Justice Ellison resulted in another ball being ripped free.
“We shoot ourselves in the foot,” Ellison said. “That’s basically what it comes down to.”
The Deacons entered the red zone just twice in the contest. A well-placed second-quarter pass from the 10-yard line fell through the arms of Morin. In the fourth quarter, another attempt to the redshirt junior fell incomplete, but was hindered heavily by strong coverage.
“I thought that was a really good ball that Michael Kern threw in the corner and we dropped it,” Clawson said. “The way things are going now, we gotta make that play. You make that play, [the game] changes. I don’t know if we win the game, but it certainly changes the score differential.”
Both drives ended in field goals, the only six points the Wake Forest offense could muster all game.
“We are struggling,” Clawson said. “We haven’t struggled like this since probably 2015. I take pride as a coach, my team should get better as the year goes on, not get worse. And you know, if people want to say that’s on coaching, I’d certainly accept that.”
“He feels like, as the head coach, a lot of that is on him,” Malik Mustapha said of the losses. “We got to execute and take the load off. Coach Clawson is never lacking, he’s always trying to help us get better. It’s on us to carry the same way and help this team elevate to where we want to be…turn the season around.”
Wake Forest gained just 262 yards on offense, with a paltry 19 on the ground for an average of 0.6 yards per rush. Adjusting for lost yardage on sacks, the Deacons still gained only 67. Virginia Tech registered 13 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks.
“They see how we’ve handled blitzes, and they blitzed the heck out of us,” Clawson said. “We went into the game wanting to run the football, but they pressured us a lot…right now, if you’re playing us, you’re gonna make our quarterback beat you.”
Along with the quarterback change, Wake Forest looked for — and found — a spark from another member of the offense, just not on an offensive play. Trailing by 10 in the second quarter, Claiborne took matters into his own hands, scampering a return 97 yards down the right sideline for the Deacons’ first points, and only touchdown, of the game.
The spark, however, would only last one play. On the following snap from scrimmage, Virginia Tech quarterback Kyron Drones threaded a short crossing-route pass to Jaylin Lane, who quickly split Evan Slocum and Carlen Carson en route to a 75-yard score.
“That was a killer,” Clawson said. “I felt like they wore us down. I don’t know what the possession time is, but it feels like they won it by a lot. I felt our defense got tired.”
Some of that fatigue is a byproduct of a lack of offensive production.
“Our offense isn’t helping our defense right now, we’re not staying on the field,” Clawson continued.
The touchdown proved to be an indicator of Wake Forest’s struggles against explosives all game long. Eight Virginia Tech passes went for more than 15 yards totaling 225. Six rushes gained 10 or more.
“Missed assignments,” Mustapha highlighted. “It’s not typical, it was disappointing. Good football teams are gonna be able to capitalize off of that. Who knows how this game would have been if we didn’t spot them some points in the first half.”
Despite the positives — forcing two three-and-outs to open the game and a Caelen Carson fumble recovery in the third quarter — the Demon Deacons defense twice allowed three-straight scoring drives. A seven-play touchdown effort by the Hokies put the game away for good.
At 3-3, Wake Forest’s hopes of making it to an eighth-straight bowl game are far from being dead, but the road forward just got even harder. Following three-straight losses, each backbreaking in their own ways, changes need to happen. Further, a choice needs to be made.
“We have a decision to make,” Morin, a captain, said. “That’s what [Clawson] came in and told the team, either lay down [and] call it quits [for the] rest of season, or we can fight. I know our locker room, I know our team, we’re gonna fight.”