WINSTON-SALEM, NC – When an opportunity comes against the No. 4 team in the country that can flip the game from the very jump, you take it. Instead, what should’ve been a Jordan Travis interception fell harmlessly incomplete, and Florida State ended its opening drive with a touchdown. A fight to stay in the game could only continue for so long — a second-quarter Seminole barrage left the Deacons tumbling to the mats.
“That’s the most complete football team that we’ve played all season,” head coach Dave Clawson said after the game. “They’re a much better football team than we are right now. They outcoached us, they out-prepared us, they out-played us, they out-executed us.”
Following significant external discussion of the position throughout the week, starting quarterback Mitch Griffis returned under center after missing a win over Pitt. Wake Forest’s first three drives ended in punts, and only amounted to 13 total yards.
A 51-yard rush by Justice Ellison kickstarted the Deacs’ fourth possession. Griffis’ first completion of the day took Wake Forest to the goal-line, and two plays later, a creative Ke’Shawn Williams end-around went for six.
Wake Forest’s next four drives all resulted in three-and-outs and combined for a loss of three yards. Nearly two-thirds of the team’s first-half offensive yards came on one play, 100% of the net yards on one possession.
Griffis’ return at quarterback was not a foregone conclusion until just over an hour before kickoff, though, according to Clawson, there was confidence he could play “around Tuesday or Wednesday.”
With the redshirt sophomore commanding the offense, and against a potent Florida State pass rush, Wake Forest leaned heavily on the ground game. The Deacs ran the ball 49 times compared to 16 pass attempts.
“We weren’t as balanced today,” Ellison said. “We’re going to look [at] the drawing board and we’re going to challenge each other to continue to be balanced so that we can win more games.”
Griffis completed six of his throws for 82 yards and didn’t record a touchdown, though also avoided any turnovers. Despite an offense that oftentimes struggled — Wake Forest finished with 210 yards and nine punts — Clawson did not consider benching his starting quarterback.
“Is it stalling because of the quarterback,” Clawson asked. “Or is it stalling because of all the pieces?...The checks were the right checks. The ball for the most part was going where it should go. [Griffis] missed a couple of throws. But when you’re under duress like that, and there’s not a lot of separation, that’s going to happen.”
When rushing, Wake Forest was faced with a defense that often knew what was coming. According to Ellison, Florida State was consistently calling runs at the line, including direction and type of run. The Seminoles even called out the run on Ellison’s 51-yard scamper that later led to a touchdown.
“It’s not uncommon,” Ellison noted. “It was a little frustrating because, when they said the specific run, I was trying to trick them and pretend like we’re doing something else. But ultimately, they knew, for the most part, what we were doing.”
With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, Griffis was relieved by Santino Marucci, the starter behind Wake Forest’s miraculous comeback a week prior. In two drives, Marucci rushed once. On another play, he was sacked. Otherwise, the redshirt sophomore handed the ball off.
Following Caelen Carson’s first-quarter drop of a seemingly sure-thing interception, Florida State beat a third down by getting around the Wake Forest edge and completing a 13-yard pass on the scramble. The Seminoles next third down, inside the Deacons’ red zone, left Travis escaping the pocket again, this time reaching the end zone.
“We left a lot of stuff out on the table,” Mustapha said. “Going against good teams, they’re going to capitalize off mistakes. We gotta hone in on the details and fix some errors.”
In back-to-back drives after, the defense found its footing, relying on solid pass coverage from Carson and Malik Mustapha to force Florida State punts.
But the Deacs’ defense soon broke against elite competition. Keon Coleman found the end zone after beating Carson on a short route, Trey Benson stunned Wake Forest with an 80-yard scamper for a one-play touchdown drive and Coleman put the game to bed with a mind-bending grab for the score. Florida State put points on the board in five of its final six possessions of the first half.
Benson added his second touchdown of the day on a nifty 18-yard run midway through the fourth quarter to put a final cap on the game. That would prove to be Florida State’s only score of the second half.
“I’m just proud of the guys for not letting up, not waving the white flag,” Mustapha said.
Redshirt freshman running back Tate Carney and Griffis combined to march Wake Forest to its second touchdown and longest drive of the game in the third. Carney drew a personal foul on a rush attempt, before following it with a 20-yard reception. Griffis joined with 20 yards of his own, and Carney plowed the final four yards.
Now, Wake Forest (4-4) is faced with the final four games of its season with hopes of making a bowl for an eighth-straight season. That journey will start with a truncated week — the Deacs are set to take on Duke in Durham Thursday evening.
“I feel like we’re going to be ready, simply just based on how we finished the second half and knowing that the fight is always going to be there,” Mustapha said. “Just gotta get it done this Thursday.”