"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Cheek: Backups provide best opportunity for bowl berth

Santino Marucci’s comeback victory against Pittsburgh deserves more than a pat on the back
Evan Harris
Third-string quarterback, former running back and safety, Santino Marucci throws a pass in his first career college start. Marucci finished 12-21 for 151 yards, 1 TD and 2 INT.

On 3rd & 8 with 55 seconds left in the ballgame, Pittsburgh quarterback Christian Veilleux appeared to ice the game by picking up the first down on an option play. It seemed like the disappointing story of Wake Forest’s 2023 season had added another chapter — so much so that my friends and I started to walk up the stairs, leaving to beat the traffic. 

But the stadium announcer stated that Veilleux had not in fact picked up the first down and instead was called short by a yard, giving Wake Forest another chance to win the game. In a beautiful twist of irony, Wake Forest got this opportunity because of the rule brought about by Kenny Pickett’s fake slide in the 2021 ACC Championship Game against Wake Forest. Needless to say, we ran back to our seats. 

This game was a slow burner. The first half was both a defensive slug fest and a display of offensive ineptitude. It was pretty obvious that Head Coach Dave Clawson didn’t trust first-time starter and third-stringer Santino Marucci to throw a lot, shown by a disparity of 16 run plays to seven pass attempts in the first half. Wake Forest even ran the ball on a 3rd & 10, a complete sign of distrust. It is understandable though. 

In the past couple of weeks, the Demon Deacons’ biggest opponent has been themselves. Turnovers and negative plays plagued the offense, which led to increased pressure on the Wake Forest defense to get more stops and put the team on their back. The previous three games against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech all shared the same plague of turnovers and relying on the defense to attempt to win games. Those three games also had more attempted passes than the game against Pittsburgh, giving opposing defenses more opportunities to pass rush against Wake Forest’s poor pass protection.

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The gameplan shifted this past Saturday against Pittsburgh, leaning more on a run game that had shown flashes of brilliance — like in the Sept. 9 matchup against Vanderbilt — but had faltered the past two weeks. Demond Claiborne excelled with the higher workload, rushing 14 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns in addition to a single reception for 22 yards. I think it is time for Claiborne to be the lead back. While he has been more productive than Justice Ellison, Claiborne is listed behind Ellison on the depth chart.

The switch was not entirely effective, as displayed by the low scoring, but it meant that Wake Forest did not beat themselves at all during the first half. They were content with running on all three downs and then punting to an equally bad Pittsburgh offense in an attempt to force Pittsburgh to make mistakes. They did not, but Pittsburgh also failed to score after their first drive during the first half. 

The stalemate continued through the third quarter, but the game opened up in the fourth quarter, mostly out of necessity. While it looked like neither team wanted to win, someone had to. After falling behind 10-7 early in the fourth quarter — courtesy of a 41-yard field goal by Pittsburgh kicker Ben Sauls — Wake Forest fans inside the stadium were uneasy. It was pretty well understood that the same offense that had produced only seven points in 45 minutes of play was expected to come to life and win the game. And surprisingly, they did. 

Clawson and offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero finally allowed Marucci to use his arm to move the offense down the field. Marucci was not perfect — or even great — but his arm proved enough to get the job done. His trust in his receivers to make 50-50 plays worked just well enough to scratch out a win. He threw interceptions — one into double coverage in the third quarter and another head scratcher with 1:03 remaining in the game, which nearly lost Wake Forest the game —  but he redeemed himself, with a clutch, methodical final drive and eventual go-ahead strike to tight end Cameron Hite with seven seconds left.

I think Marucci has earned the right to start as quarterback against No. 4 Florida State. He played well enough for his first career game as a starter that he should get another opportunity. We have seen what Mitch Griffis did with the offense, and it was laden with turnovers and not enough to get wins over ACC competition. I liked what Michael Kern did in his short time as quarterback against Virginia Tech, but he is nursing a hurt shoulder that will sideline him for a while. For now it should be Marucci.

Correction Nov. 15: An earlier version of this article misstated Julien Cheek’s position. He is a contributing writer, not a staff writer.

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