APEX — Kendall Massey and his Wake Forest secondary mates knew the outcome of Friday night’s 4AA eastern regional football championship game was on them before head coach Reggie Lucas even put that idea out there.
“When you face a passing team, you know it’s on you,” said Massey, a senior cornerback. “If we make plays, we win the game.”
So they weren’t shocked when Lucas, just moments before the Cougars loaded the bus to face Middle Creek, told his defensive backs to go win the game.
“I believe that’s the way you win football games with your defensive backs making plays and tackles,” Lucas said after Wake Forest’s 24-23 victory over the Mustangs.
The Cougars (12-3) did just that after falling behind 14-7 to Middle Creek on two wide receiver screen passes that went for touchdowns against Wake Forest’s blitzing defense.
But a switch to a defense that relied on the Wake Forest defensive line to put pressure on the quarterback caused problems for the Middle Creek offense.
The Mustangs threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns on the night, but they didn’t get the big gains and long runs after catches that had helped them in their previous 12 wins this season.
“They were hurting us by running behind the line after they caught screen passes early,” said senior cornerback Chris Leonard, who spent most of the night lined up across from Middle Creek standout receiver and East Carolina recruit Curtis Burston. “Once we made the defensive adjustment and got some help from our linebackers we really cut those down.”
The Cougars shut down the Mustangs’ deep shots, for the most part. Massey had a pass breakup on a deep ball from quarterback Brant Grisel to Keon Smith in the second half.
“We’ve got an amazing front-seven group,” Massey said. “They can really adjust on the fly and when we went to more of a coverage defense we tackled a lot better as a team.”
Middle Creek’s Mike Castellano said his team would have liked to run the ball more against the less aggressive approach up front by the Wake Forest defense, but the Mustangs’ backfield has been ravaged by injuries this season leaving few options.
After the go-ahead field goal, the Cougars had to make the game-ending play. Middle Creek completed a screen on fourth-and-8, down 1 with less than a minute left, but Massey and senior safety Nic Deluke led the group that pulled down Mustangs’ receiver Jay Schuller a yard short of the first down.
“Coach always says as a defensive back you have to make plays,” said Wake Forest sophomore safety Ki’Mon Small. “You want that pressure as a DB.”