DURHAM, NC – The night before Wake Forest’s game against Duke, head coach Dave Clawson told the team to play with emotion, but avoid being emotional. And for 50 minutes, the Demon Deacons did. But in the most critical times throughout, Wake Forest made inexplicable errors, taking an almost certain win and instead leaving Durham with a heartbreaking 24-21 loss.
“We just beat ourselves,” captain Taylor Morin said. “That’s something that we pride ourselves on is not doing that. It’s very frustrating, especially being an older guy. We haven’t done that in years past. It’s an uncharacteristic loss…something that we’re gonna have to live with.”
“We had that game won.”
In the leadup to Todd Pelino’s game-winning 26-yard field goal as the clock expired, Wake Forest missed two field goals, turned the ball over on a fumble and an interception and committed three significant fouls on two of the final drives.
“This one hurts, it really stings,” Clawson said. “In terms of the scrimmage plays, I thought we outplayed [Duke]...We lacked the discipline necessary to win a close football game.”
“This is a game we gave away.”
Duke took possession of the football at their 37-yard line with 4:12 remaining in a tied game. On third-and-13, a overthrown toss from true freshman and third-string quarterback Grayson Loftis fell incomplete, but a pass interference by redshirt sophomore Deshawn Jones negated the play and awarded the Blue Devils a fresh set of downs.
Four plays later, following an eight-yard completion, Jones was assessed an unnecessary roughness penalty. The penalty advanced Duke to the 15-yard line, where it was comfortably in range to kick the game-winner.
“The shame is, the most selfish penalty you can ever commit is an unnecessary roughness or an unsportsmanlike penalty…” Clawson said. “We just made some really undisciplined, stupid penalties down the stretch that cost us the football game.”
In addition to Jones’ two penalties on the final drive of the game, true freshman Aiden Hall was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct midway through the fourth quarter, shepherding the Blue Devils just outside the red zone. On the ensuing down, Loftis connected with Jordan Moore in the end zone to tie the game at 21.
“I’m not gonna lie, it’s tough, simply because now it’s a trust issue with coaches,” junior captain Malik Mustapha said. “Aiden has been tremendous for us on special teams, and even when he has stepped in on defense, he’s done a good job. But, take one step forward, take two steps back.”
“You just gotta be smart in those situations.”
Starting quarterback Mitch Griffis, who has been subject to calls for his benching by the Wake Forest fanbase, put together one of his best performances for the majority of the game. The redshirt sophomore completed two passes of 16 and 25 yards on the Deacons’ second drive, teaming up with running back Demond Claiborne for a deliberate march to a touchdown.
In the second quarter, Griffis found receiver Jahmal Banks to keep a drive that started in the red zone alive. One play later, Griffis kept it himself on a designed run and hustled in for six. Wake Forest’s final touchdown drive was Griffis’ most impressive, though. A 61-yard pass to Morin kickstarted the possession, and from the five-yard line, Griffis evaded the blitz and dashed for another score.
Griffis finished the game 16-19 through the air for 241 yards. His first incompletion of the game did not come until 18 seconds before the fourth quarter.
“It was great to see,” Morin said of Griffis’ early-game production. “We were able to get into a rhythm. You can really see the potential of this offense once it’s rolling.”
But, two of Wake Forest’s fourth-quarter drives ended with turnovers at the hands of the quarterback. With a seven-point lead, Griffis scrambled forward on a third-and-five. In the process of reaching the line to gain, he dove, was hit and helicoptered in the air, losing the ball mid-spin. Duke recovered the fumble.
The Blue Devils later earned a possession — which would become the game-winning drive — on a Griffis interception where the ball waffled out of his hand during the windup.
“We had some turnovers in the second half,” Clawson said. “Which is a shame, because that was one of the better offensive performances that we’ve had in quite a while.”
Per Clawson, Griffis put a glove on during the game due to issues gripping the ball in the sub-40 degree weather.
Wake Forest left additional points on the field via special teams. Before Thursday’s game, redshirt sophomore Matthew Dennis was 14-16 on field goals for the season. He missed both of his attempts, from 27 and 39 respectively.
With first-string quarterback Riley Leonard out with an injury, and Loftis starting his first collegiate game, Duke relied heavily on the rushing attack.
Loftis completed just seven passes, while the Blue Devils gained 181 yards on the ground.
“That was definitely a big point of emphasis,” Mustapha said. “In the beginning [of the game], we let them get ahead of us a little bit. We knew…they were going to establish the run. I feel like we could’ve executed it better, but at the end of the day, that was [Duke’s] only identity.”
The Blue Devils’ first touchdown relied squarely on the backs, with Jaquez Moore gaining 25 and 32 yards, the second of which resulted in the game-tying score. To even the game once more at 14, Duke embarked on a 14-play drive over seven minutes; 12 of the plays were rushes, totaling 62 yards. Wake Forest allowed four converted third downs on the possession.
With the loss, the Demon Deacons drop to 4-5 with the final stretch of a trying season ahead. In order to reach an eighth-straight bowl under Clawson, Wake Forest will need to win two of its remaining three games against NC State, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
“There’s no question that we’re going to come out ready to play,” Morin said. “But coming out ready to play and executing are two different things. Hopefully, we can get both of those things done…we can’t let this game beat us twice.”