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Wake Forest erases 17-point deficit, stuns Old Dominion 27-24

Jacob Roberts’ fourth-quarter strip sack led to a Mitch Griffis game-winning touchdown pass

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

NORFOLK, VA – When a listless Wake Forest entered the locker room with its first scoreless opening half since 2020, head coach Dave Clawson hoped to find out what his team was made of. His team trailed by 17 and looked to be going nowhere. With a staggering comeback, kickstarted by brilliant defense and a resurgent quarterback, Clawson’s Deacons ripped victory from the jaws of defeat, stunning Old Dominion 27-24.

“Definitely a hard fought win,” he said after the game. “I told [the players] at halftime, we had a team in 2017 that went up to Syracuse and played really poorly and were down 17 points. At halftime, that team made a decision that they were just going to…get into it play by play by play and not panic. And if we did that, we’d give ourselves a chance to get back into the football game. And fortunately, that happened.”

At one point seemingly out of the game, Wake Forest made a desperate charge midway through the second half. With eight minutes left in the game, the Deacons trailed by four, needing a stop. In stepped Jacob Roberts. Just one play after sacking quarterback Grant Wilson to draw up a third-and-long, the linebacker got to him once more, this time stripping the ball free.

Roberts, a lightly recruited player out of high school, was in just his third game with the Demon Deacons after transferring from North Carolina A&T. His impact was felt against Elon and Vanderbilt, but this game-changing play meant that much more.

“I knew my back was against the wall,” he said. “‘When your number gets called, go make a play. It’s about me trusting my teammates and my teammates trusting me.”

Jasheen Davis recovered Roberts’ forced fumble and returned the ball to the six-yard line. Two plays later, Wake Forest took the lead on a Mitch Griffis touchdown pass to Jahmal Banks.

Griffis, in his first season as Wake Forest’s starting quarterback, came a long way from the beginning of the contest to the game-winning toss. The Deacon offense’s first eight drives ended either in a punt or turnover.

“I played horrible,” Griffis said. “I held on to the ball too long and tried to make something happen when, really, I should be playing much smarter football. If we lost this game, it would have been because of me.”

On his first pass of the game — a third-and-six — Griffis attempted to throw out of a sack, but the hit sent the ball short for an easy interception. After four-straight punts, the Deacs found the red zone, but the redshirt sophomore tried to extend the play, losing the ball for a fumble-six and a 14-point deficit. In the third quarter, with an unprotected rusher bearing down on him, Griffis tossed a desperation pass, which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

“We just gotta learn at times to give up on a play,” Clawson noted.

The offense’s struggles were not the quarterback’s alone. Protection was a losing battle for much of the afternoon — Old Dominion registered six quarterback hits, four sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss. Wake Forest was also missing three key blocking pieces — offensive lineman Nick Sharpe, Spencer Clapp and starting tight end Cam Hite were all out with injuries.

“We came into the game and were running a lot of stretch [rushes],” Clawson said. “They were really bringing a lot of guys off the edges and perimeter. What killed us the whole game is just how often we got off schedule, whether it was a penalty, a sack, a missed assignment. We’re constantly second-and-12, second-and-15.”

Minutes after the pick-six, Griffis was hit hard and had to be helped off the field. In that moment, and in many throughout the day, a coach could’ve gone to his backup quarterback, but Clawson didn’t. Despite all Griffis’ struggles, Clawson never lost faith.

“Mitch is our quarterback,” he said. “If he’s your guy, and you believe in him, you gotta let him play through that stuff. There’s gonna be games you don’t play well for a quarter or a half. I thought he gave us the best chance to win. As a young quarterback, at times, you got to let guys play through that stuff.”

In the face of that adversity, with the trust of his coach and team behind him, Griffis persevered. Trailing by 11 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Griffis and the offense embarked on its best drive of the day. Just plays after beating a third down with a completion to Ke’Shawn Williams, Griffis found Taylor Morin striding down the field for a 45-yard score. His next time on the field would be to toss the game-winner.

“I don’t like winning because of personal glory,” Griffis said. “I like winning because I let the team down, and we just did that [comeback] together as a unit. That was the biggest thing for me. I can’t let those guys down.”

“The great thing about this team is…no one folded,” Morin later added. “Everyone stayed positive, optimistic. There was no question that [Griffis] was gonna bounce back. There was never a sense of doubt in Mitch. Mitch was part of the catalyst that got us going in at halftime.”

Though he found his rhythm in the second half, finishing the game with three touchdown passes and 312 yards, Griffis gave all the credit to the other side of the ball.

“We didn’t win this game because of me,” he said. “The defense played their ass off. You can’t teach heart, you can’t teach toughness, you can’t teach grit. You just gotta have it. We showed that today, and I’m so proud of those guys.”

Despite giving up 277 yards in the first half, the Wake Forest defense kept the game from getting worse; in the red zone, Evan Slocum prevented an Old Dominion score with an interception.

Then, in the second half, the “black hats,” as they publicly coined themselves last week, didn’t give up a single point. The Monarchs could only muster 23 total yards of offense; just one of six drives went for positive yardage.

In addition, the Wake Forest pass rush posted 10 sacks for 68 yards one week after only managing two. Roberts and Davis, the vital pieces to the tide-turning fumble, led with three each. Roberts (four), Davis (three) and Dylan Hazen (two) contributed to the Deacons’ 12 tackles-for-loss.

“I just can’t say enough about the performance of our defense,” Clawson said. “Jacob Roberts, Dylan Hazen, the D line, they were difference makers.”

Especially in the second half, Wake Forest was critically adept at limiting explosive plays, something Clawson was concerned about when three resulted in touchdowns against Vanderbilt.

“Other than the one play, the double move that we gave up in the first half, I thought our defense played great the whole game,” he said.

A hallmark of Clawson’s coaching style at Wake Forest, something that has been touted heavily in the past few years, is the goal of going “1-0 every week.” Though the struggle was tremendous, his team accomplished that goal, and in doing so, learned much about itself for the future.

“I think this is a team that just cares about one another,” Morin said. “We play for a bigger purpose than just ourselves. “[We’re] a team that’s going to play four quarters each and every game. We proved that here today and we’re gonna continue to prove that down the stretch.”

Wake Forest opens conference play next week at home against Georgia Tech. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:30pm on the CW.