Four Downs: NC State still can’t win at Wake Forest

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — With a 28-13 home win, Wake Forest handed N.C. State its second loss of the season, making transitive property look completely ridiculous by losing 56-7 at Clemson last weekend when NC State only lost to Clemson by a score of 26-14. Oh forget it, let’s just all agree transitive property isn’t a thing. Here are four takeaways from the game:
1. Wake Forest remains the place where other North Carolina-based teams’ dreams go to shrivel up and die
And the Deacons are just fine with that. Head coach Jim Grobe is 32-10 against in-state opponents (21-3 at home) and he has not padded that stat against inferior teams — he’s 14-3 at home against the three ACC in-state teams (Duke, UNC and NC State). 
But North Carolina and Duke have both won in Winston-Salem since NC State last has (2001), and particularly since the two schools are in the same division, it has become a source of frustration for the Wolfpack.
When asked what made it so difficult, senior cornerback Dontae Johnson sighed. “If I knew, I would tell you,” he said, shrugging. “I don’t know what it is about Winston-Salem, but we really do struggle here.”
Naturally, Wake Forest always enjoys hosting an in-state opponent. But there was also the added factor of Wake Forest coming off a lopsided loss at Clemson and a 2-3 start to the year, feeling like this game was huge for their season. 
“It’s just a sense of urgency, just playing an in-state rivalry game,” senior wide receiver Michael Campanaro said. “You kind of sense it all week around the community. It’s just — I wouldn’t say hatred, it’s a little bit of hatred that goes on just in the Triad area. This is a big game. A lot of people came out here to support us, so it’s always a big game when we play Duke, NC State or North Carolina.”
It’s not like any of the in-state teams that travel to Winston-Salem are college football powers, but it’s safe to say that most of Wake’s recent home wins over NC State and its most recent one against North Carolina (last season) were definitely upsets. 
Even Wake Forest senior nose tackle Nikita Whitlock doesn’t know how to answer that question. “I have no idea,” Whitlock said, shaking his head and smiling. “Some things just happen. Some things you can’t explain.”
2. Mo. Men. Tum.
It can be a powerful thing, both for a young NC State team playing its first road game and for a senior-laden Wake Forest team that was desperate for a win. No one seemed to have a clear hold on the oh-so-elusive momentum in the first half, until NC State scored its only touchdown of the afternoon with 39 seconds left to go up 10-7. 
But mere seconds later, Wake QB Tanner Price found tight end Spencer Bishop for a 54-yard pass play. As drawn up, Bishop chips a defensive end and then goes out on his route, he said, and is often is able to leak out undetected. He did, as there wasn’t an NC State defender in sight. 
Bishop got Wake to the NC State 10-yard line, and the Deacs would score three plays later to take back the halftime lead, 14-10. 
From NC State’s perspective, it was devastating. 
“We were up, we had momentum and 30 seconds left, honestly that was a terrible performance on our end. It put our offense in a bad situation,” Johnson said. “As a defense, we have to be a lot better in that situation. We’ve just got to make sure we tackle and just be in the right places to make plays when we’re supposed to and just make plays, because that right there gave them momentum going into halftime and we were unable to rebound from that.”
As NC State head coach Dave Doeren pointed out, though, the Wolfpack had plenty of chances to get back in the game. They just couldn’t. It wasn’t just the end-of-half Wake touchdown that did them in, though it didn’t help. 
“It hurt. We were going to go in with a lead and have possession to start the second half, but there was a lot of opportunities after that drive to be in the game,” Doeren said. “I think we forced one turnover on the night and they went three and out on us, and when we gave our offense good field position we didn’t take advantage of it — twice. Just wasn’t good enough.”
Now obviously from Wake Forest’s side, the late first-half touchdown was huge. The Deacs went into the locker room as hyped up and “rowdy”, as Campanaro put it, as they had been all game. And it kept ramping up. 
“Our coaches talk to us all the time about there’s going to be ups and downs, it’s just about coming back, fighting back. It was a huge play to Spencer. That was a big play in the game,” Campanaro said. “It just shifted the momentum going into half. It was really big for us.”
“Momentum, it’s like a tsunami,” Whitlock said. “It starts little and then it just hits you. I think we got the momentum, we kept it going and we played great.”
3. Michael Campanaro is a beast
Johnson was guarding the seemingly-unstoppable senior flanker Campanaro, who finished with 12 catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns. And he knew it was a bad sign when Campanaro caught a slant on the first play of the game for 12 yards. “Once a great player gets going, momentum, they feel it and they’re just going to keep going and they’re going to just keep getting the ball and doing everything they want to do,” Johnson said. 
And that’s all Campanaro needs to get going, really. Campanaro said after he gets the first one, he feels like there’s nothing he can’t do, no ball he can’t catch, no play he can’t make. And it sure looked like it as the game went on.
“I think it’s the first one,” Campanaro said, his eyes lighting up. “I’ve always got to get the first one out of the way. Once I get one catch, I just feel like I’m in the game.
“Once I get that first one out of the way, then it’s just time to ball.”
Campanaro was held to just five catches for 14 yards last year in Raleigh. And Johnson was on him mostly one-on-one, he said. This year, NC State obviously has a new defensive staff and the strategy changed some, according to Campanaro. 
“Last year, (Johnson) was more press-man and I think the opposite safety was triggering on me. It obviously worked last year,” Campanaro said. “But this year he just had me in man straight up, it seemed like. The apex defender over me was just playing inside or going each time and he just had me in man.”
It was mutual-admiration society for Johnson and Campanaro, and Johnson doesn’t know how Campanaro continues to get open, even when he’s double-teamed. He just … does. 
“He’s a great player. He sees doubles and all these different coverages every week. It’s no secret. So he has to adjust to that in order to be a great player, and he’s done a great job of doing that,” Johnson said. “By him adjusting, and he sees it every week so it was no shocker in him making plays. It was just that we were unable to eliminate the big plays to eliminate the big plays and actually slow him down. 
“He’s a great player. You can’t stop a great player. You can only hope to contain him.”
4. N.C. State’s didn’t play well, but Wake Forest had something to do with that
The Wolfpack had just one touchdown, and it had some players go down over the course of the game (or before the game) that have been valuable to the offense this year like leading receiver Rashard Smith or freshman tailback Matt Dayes. But the offensive line stayed intact, and it didn’t play as well as it has been playing. 
Whitlock, though, said that his team wanted to prove this defense was much better than it showed in an embarrassing loss at Clemson. 
“I think we were just as focused this game,” Whitlock said. “I don’t know if we weren’t focused at Clemson, but we looked terrible … It was a terrible game. I will never forget it, but I want to. I want to erase it from my memory. 
“I think we were just focused and played fast, and those are the two keys.”
And Whitlock said that he didn’t see the Wolfpack surrender until later in the game. They played hard, even if they didn’t always play well. 
“I didn’t see them get down really until the fourth quarter when we were up 28-13, that’s when they started revving down,” Whitlock said. “So they played really hard throughout the game. I think we just played better. 
“When you have a great game, it’s hard to miss. Simple as that.”
Still, Doeren understandably wasn’t pleased with what he saw out of his team in its first road game. When asked what he learned about his team, it wasn’t anything good: “That we don’t execute on the road the way we do at home,” Doeren said. 
“We talked about it umpteen-million times this week, and that was my message downstairs (in the locker room). The message has to go from the locker room to the field and show up on game day. They knew what we needed to do today and we didn’t do it.
“It’s disappointing. Some of the seniors understood and some of them didn’t. I’m disappointed in a few guys. We’ll get with them, get right and move on.”
In NC State’s last two games against ACC opponents, they’ve scored 21 total points. Suffice it to say that the Wolfpack will be happen to get Brandon Mitchell back, which it hopes to do for the Syracuse game next week. 
And NC State had eight penalties for the third time in five games this year. That’s not going to cut it.