North Carolina State quarterback MJ Morris was not slated to play much this season. He was to be the back-up to all conference candidate Devin Leary. Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman was touted as one of the best in the ACC. You would never know after Saturday night as NC State outshines Wake Forest 30-21 in Raleigh.
Morris Outduels Hartman
Morris was 18 of 28 for 210 yards. He may not have had the yardage Hartman did. But the freshman did have one thing the Wake senior did not. Touchdown passes without mistakes. He had three of them with no turnovers. Conversely, Hartman had three interceptions to go with two touchdown passes.
Starting with the lambasting in Louisville last week, Wake’s offense has become mundane at best and ineffective at worst. Removing the sack yardage from the rushing stats, the Demon Deacons managed all of 31 yards on the ground.
Another Bad Start
The troubles started early. On Wake’s first drive, on third and 18, Hartman was intercepted by Jakeen Harris at the NC State 32-yard line with Harris returning it 10 yards. The Wolfpack had to settle for a 33-yard Christopher Dunn field goal and the 3-0 lead. But it was a sign of a Wake offense that had no rhythm all night.
Wake Forest couldn’t even get on the board at all until the second quarter. The Demon Deacons drove 75 yards on 10 plays, aided by an NC State pass interference penalty in the end zone. Christian Turner bulled up the middle for a three-yard touchdown run to put Wake up 7-3.
But Morris, while he did not have eye-popping stats much of the game, did have answers. He drove the Pack 71 yards behind the momentum of a 44-yard completion to Keyon Lesane. Later he found Lesane on a crossing route at the front of the end zone for the touchdown and the 10-7 lead.
Wake would take the lead for the final time of the night. Hartman drove the team 75 yards on eight plays. Throwing under pressure as he did much of the night, he threw off-balance and hit Taylor Morin in the back of the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown pass and the 14-10 lead. That was as good as it got.
From Bad To Really Bad
The NC State offense started picking on Wake’s reserve defensive back Evan Slocum. He was called for interference in the end zone on a second-and-10 play. It helped move NC State into striking position. As Morris was scrambling, he threw across his body and Darryl Jones for 13 yards in the end zone for the touchdown and the 17-14 advantage…a lead they would never relinquish.
The second half was short…not literally, but in availability. Wake went three and out on its first drive. NC State countered with a drive that burned 7:33 off the clock. Morris capped off the 80 yards with a two-yard touchdown pass to Jones for the 24-14 lead.
Wake’s answer was another interception. On fourth and 10 at the NC State 40-yard line, Hartman, under pressure again, threw into double coverage and was picked at the 20-yard line by Cyrus Fagan. That eventually turned into a 51-yard Dunn field goal and a 27-14 Wolfpack lead. Wake Forest was completely shut out in the third quarter.
Closer But Not Close
The Demon Deacons managed one more touchdown. After the officials marked the ball down at the Wake Forest one-yard line after an NC State punt, it was a herculean mountain to climb. On fourth and seven from his own 45-yard line, Hartman hit Jahmal Banks with a 22-yard completion to the NC State 33 to keep the drive and any faint hopes alive. Down by two scores, they were forced to go for it again on fourth and six from the 29-yard line. On the run, Hartman threw to A.T. Perry who was going down in the end zone as he made the catch. It was 27-21 NC State. The Wolfpack added one more field goal late in the game to get to the final margin.
Two weeks ago, Wake was riding high at #10 in the country and looking toward premier bowl games. Two weeks later, they are 6-3 overall and 2-3 in conference play and scrapping to regain any semblance of what they once had. An offense that at one point in the season was averaging more than 40 points per game has now struggled to put up 21 points in each of the last two games.
Where Is The Offense?
Clawson of course needs time to look at the game film to assess how the bottom is falling out of a once-potent offense. Certainly, not all of Hartman’s six interceptions over the last two weeks are his fault. But he is the quarterback, and he gets the notice, good and bad. The offensive line did not give him anywhere near enough protection, and with a complete absence of a viable running game, it put more of the offense on his shoulders.
“Anytime you get behind two scores, it becomes a little tougher,” Clawson said after the game. “I hate to say this pick happened or that pick happened until after we watch the film.”
It was a heated Clawson early on the sidelines. On multiple occasions, he was at the numbers on the field yelling at the game officials. The aggressiveness of the NC State defense had blitzes coming at full speed from different angles trying to time the snap of the ball. On one occasion, the replay showed the defender jumped the line before the ball was snapped. But the pressure also caused the Wake offensive line to jump into false starts, putting them behind the chains with great frequency.
Clawson was asked about the potential missed calls. Since the ACC fines coaches for publicly taking the officials to task, he responded by saying he would not get into if there were missed calls. “In general there seemed to be a lack of control across the board.” There was a lot of chippiness in the closing minutes of the game. Clawson said he thought things got out of hand but blamed both teams.
Where Is Hartman?
Morin was asked about the problems plaguing the offense. “We’re just not getting into a rhythm,” he said after the game. Tight end Blake Whiteheart was asked about his quarterback and the criticism that is going to come from his statistical performance over the last two weeks. “People can say what they want,” he responded. “I’m beyond proud of him.”
For the second consecutive week, Hartman did not meet with the media after the game. The school issued a statement in response to our inquiry. “Wake Forest Communications did not make Sam Hartman available to the media the past two weeks.”
At one point, the Orange Bowl was in clear site for Wake. Now, with Clemson also going down Saturday, the entire ACC is moving down some rungs on the postseason ladder. The Demon Deacons have an offensively explosive North Carolina Tar Heels team coming to Winston-Salem next week. Clawson said his team has to rebound. “This is what we signed up for. Nobody feels sorry for us. We’ve been on the road the last two weeks, played two good football teams, and didn’t play well enough to win.”