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Evan Harris/Blogger So Dear

Wake Forest cruises over Elon despite rushing, second-half struggles

QB Mitch Griffis threw three first-half touchdowns, but gave up a pick-six in the second

WINSTON-SALEM, NC – In a FBS-FCS game that initially looked like it would be a blitz to the finish line for Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons’ first-string offense was left playing deep in the fourth quarter of a 37-17 victory. Quarterback Mitch Griffis’ side of the ball didn’t come out of the locker room the same way the second time around.

“I made some errors in the second half,” Griffis said. “I have to improve on those things.”

Specifically, Wake Forest couldn’t close the game in the third quarter. After leading 27-0, a Griffis pick-six gave Elon its second touchdown and closed the deficit to two scores.

“I thought we had a chance to get that game over in the third quarter,” head coach Dave Clawson said. “[The] pick-six and our inability to score touchdowns in the red zone, that will cost us games later [in] the season.”

Griffis’ first half was about as solid of a performance as one could hope for. His first drive as the full-time starter for Wake Forest featured a 5-5 line with 46 passing yards and a wide-open touchdown to Wesley Grimes.

At the outset of the second quarter, Griffis uncorked a deep ball to Jahmal Banks that was corralled in spectacular fashion for the score.

“I call him ‘Jump Ball ‘Mal,’” Griffis said of the junior. “There’s no 50-50 balls with Jahmal, it’s all 90-10.”

Wake Forest’s third touchdown of the night came on perhaps Griffis’ best pass. The redshirt sophomore spotted tight end Cam Hite sneaking beyond the secondary and hit him through traffic. From there, Hite raced away.

“Mitch threw to me in the series before and we saw something we liked in the defense,” Hite said. “Coach R [offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero] dialed us a perfect play call. We were able to give a little stutter to the MIKE [linebacker] there and hit the middle.”

“I think we’ll get this look,” Griffis recalls Ruggiero saying over the sideline phone. “That’s exactly what happened. It’s cool [that the play] came to fruition.”

The offense slowed down considerably in the third quarter. A field goal and punt preceded Griffis’ biggest mistake of the night — an interception that left him rolling to the ground unsuccessfully trying to make a touchdown-saving tackle.

“That was a good play,” he said. “The free safety came into the box. I’m trying to get the post around him. He stayed near…jumped in front of it. I should’ve pulled that one.”

Along with the interception, Griffis took three sacks.

“I thought he did some good things, but I thought he was inconsistent,” Clawson said of his quarterback’s performance. “I thought his internal clock, especially on third down…some of those sacks could easily have been stripped sacks. We can’t afford to have turnovers on third down. That’s how you lose football games.”

But for Griffis, this is a jumping point — just his second game as a starting quarterback. There’s room to grow.

“Each week I will improve, that’s the goal,” he said. “I want to be perfect, but I won’t be perfect. I think things will get a little easier [over time], just in the sense that I’ll get more comfortable and get more experience, it’s going to keep getting better and better.”

Early in the game, Wake Forest’s rushing attack struggled. Justice Ellison averaged 2.7 yards per carry.

“I thought we’d run the ball better,” Clawson said. “And you know, there’s times it looked like we had seams and we just didn’t bust through it.”

The team found its stride on the ground late, though. Utilizing a jumbo set, back Demond Claiborne scampered for 41 yards over four plays, the last of which ended in the end zone.

“My mood is a little bit better because of the way we finished the game” Clawson added. “I thought Demond Claiborne made some really good cuts.”

“That was great,” Griffis said of the four-play stretch. “That was they knew we would run the ball every single play. Everybody’s in the box. O-line did a great job. They kicked some tail.”

Defensively, the Deacs were far more consistent, minus one play.

A good block on a run against cover-zero led to an easy 49-yard touchdown. But the lone mistake was made up for with nine tackles for loss and six quarterback hits, with the Deacs also holding the Phoenix to just two of 16 third-down conversions.

“Our defense played really well,” Clawson said. “Our third down defense was as good as it’s been here in a long time. I thought we rushed the passer [well].”

Additionally, Dashawn Jones and Demarcus Rankin notched interceptions.

“We covered well,” Clawson noted. “I thought the corners played really well. It’s a big play by Demarcus in the red zone, and then Deshawn did a great job on that last pick.”

The first game of every season is a building block. There are things to be learned, improved upon and implemented. Fortunately, Wake Forest was able to do so against an FCS team. Next week, an SEC team comes to town. But Griffis and co. are ready to work.

“There’s definitely a positive attitude towards it,” he said. “I’m excited to see what I did wrong and make those corrections. We play a great opponent next week. Vanderbilt is a really good football team. It’s gonna be a good test for us. We’re really excited.”

Kickoff is set for 11am ET on ACC Network.