WINSTON-SALEM, NC – One week after a dismal first half and equally exceptional comeback, Wake Forest was left in the same position against Georgia Tech. The Deacs trailed by 17 at the half, yet clawed their way back into the game, and with four minutes remaining, found themselves with the ball and trailing by just seven.
Quarterback Mitch Griffis promptly marched Wake Forest down the field for what appeared to be another game-changing drive. On first-and-10 from the opposing 21-yard line, Griffis deftly maneuvered out of the pocket, locked in on his intended receiver and threw. Defender Kenan Johnson undercut the ball, snatching it away, and with it the win as well.
Victory would not be stolen from the jaws of defeat for a second-straight week — Wake Forest lost 30-16.
“When a team keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over, and they’re not learning, that’s a sign of a team that’s not really well coached,” head coach Dave Clawson said following the defeat. “We’re just beating ourselves. We’re not giving ourselves a chance.”
Griffis finished the game with three interceptions — though one was at the fault of tight end Cam Hite, who coughed up the ball mid-air. In addition, the offense fumbled four times, with two recovered by the Yellow Jackets. The Georgia Tech defense, after garnering just two sacks in its first three games, took Griffis down eight times and registered 10 tackles for loss.
“After three turnovers last week, we had five tonight,” Clawson said. “We’re not going to beat anybody if we turn it over three times, let alone five. I was hoping we’d come out a little better [after last week], and that we’d learn a lesson. Honestly, that part of it got worse.”
While only scoring three points in the first half, the offense appeared to be steady — far from the group that looked lost a week prior in Norfolk. But again, the offensive line couldn’t hold up, somewhat to do with injuries. According to Clawson, Spencer Clapp gritted out the game, but didn’t appear entirely healthy.
Additionally, Wake Forest was forced to shift several positions on the line.
“I thought the pocket got dented and collapsed pretty quickly,” Clawson said. “In the second half, it got better. We made an adjustment and moved Matt Gulbin to right tackle, we put Devonte Gordon at left tackle and George Sell at guard. I thought the pocket got a little bit better.”
Along with a less-than-optimal offensive line, Clawson found fault in the continuation of Griffis taking too much time in the pocket.
“It’s a problem,” Clawson said. “I told [Griffis] last week, ‘your clock has to speed up.’ Didn’t happen. It’s a four-week problem. We’re holding on to the ball too long.”
In looking back at the potential game-winning drive turned interception, Clawson also wrestled with the unnecessary risks taken by his quarterback.
“[You] think you’re gonna go to overtime,” he said. “It’s just first down, throw it away. Cut your losses. The play broke down, he got flushed. Just throw it away, don’t force it. I appreciate the competitiveness, but you gotta cut your losses and live for another down.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Wake Forest also fell back on an old problem — explosive plays. Georgia Tech generated five gains of over 30 yards, four of them coming through the air. Two ended in first-half touchdowns, while a 26-yard rush late in the fourth was the final nail in the Deacons’ coffin.
But in attempting to look back on those plays, Clawson reverted back to what he truly believed to be the backbreaker — the turnovers.
“The other [explosives], I don’t recall what they were right now,” he said, his face in clear anguish. “I’m just going nuts with the turnovers right now. I don’t think [the explosives] necessarily cost us the game. I thought our defense, at times, did a good job of getting the ball down and playing the next down.”
Following the game, there was palpable frustration. Clawson appeared to be in disbelief, and several players were struggling to verbalize how it all went wrong. In the end, it was Griffis who took the blame. For a second-straight week, he claimed that the loss tied back directly to his performance.
“I feel like I’ve let the team down,” the redshirt sophomore said. “I don’t like winning football games because it gets me highlights in the press. I couldn’t give a damn about that. I just love the guys in the locker room. I hate letting them down. That’s the only reason why I love winning, is to look at everybody’s face in the locker room, see them smile and jump and dance. Letting those guys down is the hardest part about it.”
With a sour taste of a loss like Saturday’s, Wake Forest enters the bye week with away trips to Clemson and Virginia Tech on the horizon. Running back Justice Ellison knew that serious change is needed ahead.
“When you go out there and you make those mistakes, it’s really hard to fight back,” he said. “We still fought back, and [I’m] proud of the guys for fighting back. But we came up short. We need to look back at what got us [behind] and really critique those things, because you can’t go out the whole season doing that.”
“People can’t point fingers,” Ellison continued. “We got to be together. Everybody looks good when they’re not getting punched in the face. But can you get punched in the face? Can you lose? Can you go down and can you pick others up? That’s the character of a man. And Mitch, oh my god, I’m gonna be there for him and lift him up. He’s new. He’s fresh. All the other stuff — the media, everybody telling us that we not this, not that. That stuff don’t matter.”