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

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

Football season ends on sour note with 35-31 loss to Syracuse

Wake Forest finishes with 4-8 record; streak of seven-consecutive bowl games ends
Redshirt junior quarterback Michael Kern speaks to the team prior to kickoff (Courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics).

For a football season full of missteps, shortcomings and glaring question marks, it was fitting that Wake Forest’s season finale, a 35-31 defeat to Syracuse (6-6, 2-6 ACC), included all three. 

On Saturday, the Demon Deacons (4-8, 1-7 ACC) lost their fifth-straight game, earned the program’s worst record since 2015 and ended their seven-year postseason streak. 

It’s a terrible trifecta, paired with the fact that Wake Forest is only two years removed from an ACC Championship appearance, which would lead many fans to believe the 2023 season was a total failure. 

Head Coach Dave Clawson refuses to look at it that way.

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“I’m not happy with our record, but these guys showed up every day,” Clawson said. “They prepared hard, they practiced hard, they played hard down to the very, very final play.” 

He continued: “We’re not in the “happy-to-be-close” business, and I understand that we’re expected to win football games. We accept that expectation, but I am proud of our players. A lot of times you go through years like this, and you seem to give up. That never happened with this group.”

There were plenty of instances of this never-say-die mentality — like cornerback Jamare Glasker’s goal-line stand after a 15-yard leaping penalty from linebacker Jacob Roberts nearly gifted Syracuse another score before halftime, or quarterback Michael Kern orchestrating four touchdown drives to keep up with the Orange’s offense — but unfortunately, it was not enough. 

Down four with 5:44 remaining in the game, Wake Forest forced Syracuse to punt for the first and only time all afternoon. Taylor Morin (7 rec, career-high 140 yds) returned the punt past midfield to set the Wake Forest offense up for the potential game-winning drive. 

A five-broken tackle, 13-yard scramble from Kern (17-for-24, 261 yds, 3 TD, INT, 9 rush, 30 yd), two runs up the middle from Justice Ellison (11 rush, 38 yds, TD) and a defensive pass interference from a Syracuse defender put the Demon Deacons well in striking distance within the 10-yard line. Because Wake Forest failed a two-point conversion on the previous score — a beautiful back-corner catch from Wesley Grimes (3 rec, 31 yds, 2 TD) — Clawson and Co. were in four-down territory. 

Wide receiver Jahmal Banks (No. 80) runs over to celebrate one of wide receiver Wesley Grimes’ two touchdowns of the day (Courtesy of Wake Forest Athletics).

After taking a third-down sack at the line of scrimmage, there was one play left. Evading pressure, Kern rolled out to his right and sent one last prayer into the endzone, a low thrown ball to Morin. Defensive back Jason Simmons Jr. dove in front of Morin, intercepting the pass, extinguishing the visiting team’s hopes of a comeback and ending Wake Forest’s season. 

“I could have potentially gotten Taylor Morin on rhythm,” Kern said about the final play. “I’m sure I’m gonna go back and watch that on tape and wish you could correct things, but in the moment, I didn’t. Moved out, tried to get him a low ball and just missed a little bit.”

“[Kern] was really clean,” Clawson said. “I mean, we didn’t have any turnovers till the fourth down one, and I can’t fault him for that. On fourth down you got to at least get the ball in the air and give yourself a chance.”

Clawson defended the decision to go for two after Grimes by saying he did not want the game to go to overtime. 

“At that point, we hadn’t got a stop the whole day,” Clawson said. “And, you know, their kicker is better than our kicker. I just wanted to try to win the game in regulation, and if you go for two there and you get it, then you kick the field goal, you win the game. If you don’t get it, then you know you have to try to score a touchdown.”

With the exception of the fourth-quarter stop and a tip-drill interception by Roberts (7 tackles) and safety Nick Andersen (2 tackles, INT), Wake Forest’s defense struggled. The Orange offense put up 468 yards (224, pass, 224 rush), converted 12 of their 17 third-down attempts and was a perfect 2-for-2 on fourth down. 

Because quarterback Garrett Shrader (219 tot yds, 4 tot TD, INT) was still recovering from undisclosed injuries, interim Syracuse Head Coach Nunzio Campanile employed four different players to take snaps, mostly in the form of a wildcat offense. That didn’t matter to wide receiver Damien Alford (4 rec, 126 yds, 2 TD), who burnt past the depleted Wake Forest secondary multiple times, including on a 47-yard pass from tight end Dan Villari (2-for-2, 51 yd, 13 rush, 51 yd, 1 rec, 13 yd, 2 tot TD). 

“That’s what we were expecting the last two weeks with the opponents they faced, but they’re able to utilize [Ellison] more in the passing game, guess he was feeling better from whatever injury he had,” said safety Malik Mustapha, who finished with a career-high 13 tackles. “We just didn’t execute on that level. We had to adjust, and on some plays, we made some plays, [and on other plays], we didn’t.”

With the win, Syracuse claimed bowl eligibility for the second-straight year. For Wake Forest, the offseason starts earlier than years past. Had it won, Wake Forest would have secured the final of 82 bowl spots with only a 5-7 record due to its high Academic Progress Rate (APR).

Clawson said that meetings with the team to determine the course of action for the 2024 season begin next week. Both Kern and Mustapha, who would be using their sixth and fifth years of eligibility, respectively, said they need more thought as to whether they will return to Wake Forest. 

The NCAA transfer portal officially opens on Dec. 4, and NFL draft declarations will be soon to follow.

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Cooper Sullivan
Cooper Sullivan, Sports Editor
Cooper Sullivan is a senior from Winston-Salem majoring in Communication with double minors in Journalism and Art History. He enjoys long walks on the beach, dancing like no one is watching and "committing to the bit".

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