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 32-yard 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 Wolfpack 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.