Dave Doeren calls them “3-second games.”
Nail-biters, heart-breakers, gut-busters – by any name, they’re painful losses.
First came South Carolina, then Clemson and N.C. State added another to the list on Saturday night at Wake Forest.
Two late turnovers cost the 19th-ranked Wolfpack in a 30-24 loss at Wake Forest on Saturday night.
The last salvageable portion of N.C. State’s plans for a special season was to win 10 games. That can’t happen now. Not after another “3-second” loss that mirrored the narrow defeat to the Gamecocks in the opener back on Sept. 2 in Charlotte.
Three seconds here, a fumble there and a missed opportunity there can add up to the wrong kind of math for N.C. State (7-4, 5-2 ACC).
“We just didn’t make enough plays, plain and simple,” senior safety Shawn Boone said.
It was Wake Forest (7-4, 4-3) that had the right formula. Receiver Tabari Hines caught eight passes for 139 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback John Wolford threw for 247 yards and converted a key fourth-down play on what turned out to be the game-winning points.
Then it was the Deacs’ defense that came up with the two plays that mattered most. Safety Demetrius Kemp helped produce a key fumble with 1:51 left in the fourth quarter and then safety Essang Bassey closed it out with an interception in the end zone on N.C. State’s last play of the game.
Just like the South Carolina and Clemson losses, N.C. State had the ball in the waning moments and a chance to affect the outcome.
Freshman receiver Emeka Emezie looked like he might deliver a different ending this time. He caught a 20-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter and was about to score again.
Emezie eluded Wake’s defense after a catch near the 5-yard line and then tried to reach the ball into the end zone after he got to the 1. Kemp wouldn’t let him. The ball came loose, and Kemp recovered it in the end zone.
“That’s the game,” Doeren said. “You’ve got make those kind of plays.”
N.C. State got the ball back with 41 seconds left but mismanaged the clock and quarterback Ryan Finley ended up throwing up a hurried “Hail Mary” from the Wake 35-yard line that Bassey was able to secure in the back of the end zone.
Doeren and the N.C. State players were understandably crushed after the loss. In many ways, it was a repeat of the South Carolina loss. N.C. State had a 502 to 334 yardage advantage on Saturday (it was 504 to 246 against the Gamecocks) and a 28 to 18 first-down edge (it was 29 to 12 against the Gamecocks).
And in the end it was State with the ball with a chance to tie, or win, but unable to make the final necessary plays.
“You make some plays, you miss some,” said receiver Kelvin Harmon, who caught eight passes for 105 yards but had several drops.
N.C. State’s defense couldn’t make enough plays in the first half with Wake taking leads of 7-0, 14-7 and 21-14 by the end of the half.
The Wolfpack was playing catchup with Hines and Wolford (247 passing yards) carving up the secondary.
“I thought we adjusted well and played much better in the second half on defense but gave up too many points early,” Doeren said.
Freshman defensive back Chris Ingram, in his first college start, struggled to stay with Hines, who has 10 career touchdown catches — four in the past two years against the Wolfpack.
The Deacs made the most of their chances in the second half, while N.C. State struggled without running back Nyheim Hines, who was injured on a punt return early in the third quarter, and receiver Stephen Louis, who missed the game with an ankle injury.
It didn’t help that Harmon struggled with some drops and star receiver Jaylen Samuels had some dropped passes and a fumble.
That left a void of playmakers, that Emezie (five catches, 67 yards, one TD) tried to step into.
“We had enough players to win the game, we just didn’t make enough plays,” Doeren said. “That’s the bottom line.”
And the bottom line, 7-4 after another painful loss, is not where N.C. State had hoped it would be, either.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio