No way to down­play dam­age of NCSU col­lapse

The News & Observer - - Sports - BY LUKE DECOCK lde­cock@new­sob­server.com Sports colum­nist Luke DeCock: 919- 829- 8947, lde­cock@new­sob­server.com, @LukeDeCock

The gri­mace gave it all away. Lar­rell Murchi­son knew what had been lost Thurs­day night, what had slipped away from N.C. State, and there was no way to dance around it.

Be­fore he could even try to an­swer the ques­tion, he pursed his lips and squeezed his eyes shut as the re­al­iza­tion hit all over again, how an en­tire sea­son’s work get­ting into po­si­tion to make his­tory had evap­o­rated in the space of a few min­utes.

Some of his team­mates would talk about how it was just one loss, how there was plenty of sea­son left, and maybe it wasn’t that they were ly­ing, nec­es­sar­ily, so much as they were talk­ing them­selves into be­liev­ing it.

But Murchi­son – the de­fen­sive tackle whose un­likely in­ter­cep­tion was per­haps the em­blem­atic mo­ment of N.C. State’s dis­man­tling of Florida State only five days ear­lier, a vic­tory that vaulted the Wolf­pack up the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off rank­ings and just within reach of a New Year’s Eve bowl game – was too wounded to be any­thing but hon­est.

So he gri­maced, his de­spair trans­par­ent in that mo­ment. And then he ac­knowl­edged the grim and bru­tal re­al­ity of what it meant for the Wolf­pack to blow a dou­ble-digit fourth-quar­ter lead and lose 27-23 to Wake For­est. On ESPN. On Thurs­day night. With the col­lege foot­ball world watch­ing to see if N.C. State was, in­deed, for real.

“Tough loss, def­i­nitely,” Murchi­son said. “We weren’t re­ally fo­cused on after the sea­son, just try­ing to keep win­ning, do­ing our thing, and we’d just look at that af­ter­ward. But it’s def­i­nitely a key loss.”

It all went so wrong, so fast. N.C. State was up 23-13 after the first play of the fourth quar­ter, an easy touch­down pass to Emeka Emezie, ap­par­ently for­giv­ing the Wolf­pack’s ear­lier in­ef­fi­ciency in the red zone that saw it set­tle for three field goals from in­side the Wake For­est 15.

But N.C. State had never been able to run the ball all night, and that in­abil­ity to milk the clock gave Wake For­est a chance. And if Dave Claw­son has proven any­thing in his time at Wake For­est, it’s that if you give him an open­ing, he’ll find a way to steer his team through it.

When N.C. State went for it on 4th-and-short from the Wake For­est 20 in an at­tempt to put the game away and Ryan Fin­ley couldn’t con­nect with Thayer Thomas, the open­ing was there.

In seven plays and one minute, third-string quar­ter­back Jamie New­man led the Dea­cons into N.C. State ter­ri­tory, to the 32yard line. He hit tight end Jack Freuden­thal over the mid­dle, and wide re­ceiver Alex Bach­man took out a pair of State de­fend­ers with an im­pec­ca­bly timed block. Freuden­thal wan­dered into the end zone as State’s chances at his­tory wan­dered away.

A last-ditch Hail Mary from mid­field was picked off, and for the sec­ond year in a row Fin­ley’s fi­nal pass against Wake For­est was an in­ter­cep­tion in a stun­ning loss. Last year, it was on the road against the best Wake For­est team in a decade, after Emeka Emezie fum­bled the ball at the goal line. This year, it was at home against a team that had a sin­gle ACC win to its credit, on se­nior night, and with so much more for the Wolf- pack to lose.

“Was it the talk of what they could end up be­ing? Was it the talk of se­niors and three of­fen­sive line be­ing se­niors and be­ing emo­tional at the be­gin­ning of the game?” N.C. State coach Dave Do­eren said. “I’m not sure.”

Tues­day night, it seemed any­thing and ev­ery­thing was pos­si­ble, even the kind of bowl game N.C. State had never in its his­tory been able to reach. The CFP com­mit­tee clearly saw some­thing it liked in N.C. State de­spite the losses at Clem­son and Syra­cuse, bump­ing the Wolf­pack up to 14th as sev­eral teams ahead stum­bled. The path into the big time was there, laid out with blink­ing lights: 48 hours to fan­ta­size about what might be pos­si­ble with four wins over teams with los­ing records.

That’s all gone now, and the re­al­iza­tion sat heavy on Murchi­son’s broad shoul­ders.

“We went from the top of the moun­tain Satur­day to fall­ing off the moun­tain Thurs­day,” he said, and it re­ally changed more quickly than that, not a few days but less than a quar­ter.

The road ahead reached as far as the hori­zon, un­til it reached a dead end N.C. State never saw com­ing. It was just one loss, but the cost was im­pos­si­ble to mea­sure.

ETHAN HY­MAN ehy­man@new­sob­server.com

Wake For­est’s Jack Freuden­thal scores on a 32-yard touch­down re­cep­tion with 30 sec­onds left in the game dur­ing Wake For­est’s 27-23 vic­tory over N.C. State.

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