Nick Stevens

Wake Forest left no doubt

Posted December 21, 2016

Wake Forest's 2016 NCHSAA 4AA state championship football team (Photo By: Suzie Wolf/HighSchoolOT.com)

— We've seen a shift in the high school football winds over the last decade.

Wake County's relevance in high school football has steadily been on the rise. Once a forgone conclusion that Wake County would not be in a state championship game, the county has regularly put teams in the game over the last several years – including four trips for Wake Forest.

But getting to the game wasn't enough to silence the critics. "You have to win one," they would say. And despite getting close at times, Wake County never got the win.

The last time a Wake County team won the state championship was 1987. We all know that by now. We've watched as the 10-year anniversary became 15 years, then 20 years, then 25 years. And no we're staring at the 30-year anniversary next week.

Could Wake County – the largest school district in the state, the home of the state capital – go 30 years without winning a state championship?

Thanks to Wake Forest, the answer is no.

Wake Forest, after three runner-up finishes in the state championship game, finally got a win. And it wasn't an upset. It wasn't a lucky break. It was dominant performance. The Cougars left absolutely no doubt who the better team was.

Defense and special teams are always strong points for Wake Forest. The state championship game was no exception.

Page won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball. One would have to assume the strategy was to lay the first punch, but it didn't work. A rush for no gain on first down, a negative rush on second down, and an incomplete pass on third down led to a three-and-out. That's when Darius Hodge blocked his first of two punts, and Jaden McKenzie returned it for a touchdown.

Less than two minutes into the game, Wake Forest had set the tone on defense and special teams. The tone never changed either.

The defense returned to the field for the second Page drive and it ended in the same way – a three-and-out.

Page didn't pick up a first down until the second quarter. It seldom saw the Wake Forest side of the field. The Cougars were consistently playing with a short field, and even if they didn't score, the Pirates seemingly never had advantageous field position. The Cougars even pinned Page well inside the one-yard line on a punt at one point.

Wake Forest had two blocked punts and four interceptions in the game. There were a number of pass breakups, and if a Page receiver did manage to catch a pass, they were punished by the secondary.

What allowed that to happen? The defensive line.

Wake Forest did not do much blitzing on Saturday. The Cougars relied on their defensive line to rush the quarterback while everyone else dropped back into coverage. That game plan worked. The line was able to get pressure on the quarterback and keep him contained, and the coverage was able to prevent the big play.

Not many people across the state picked Wake Forest to win on Saturday. They came in the underdogs in most everyone's eyes – except their own. Even I picked Page to win. I said I thought it would be a lot closer than previous state championship games, but I picked the Pirates. After all, it is hard to go against nearly three decades of history.

After the game, though, there is no doubt in my mind I was wrong about who had the better team. Wake Forest was the best team. Period.

Sure, there will be people who try to downplay the win. I've already seen the tweets and message board posts – "They need to win more than one to be considered on the same level as Charlotte teams," "They didn't even play a Charlotte team." To that I say, nothing validates a team more than a state championship win, and they beat the team that easily handled the last team standing from the Queen City.

In high school football we decide who has the best team by holding a playoff, culminating in a state championship game. For the 2016 season, Wake Forest left no doubt. The Cougars were the best 4-AA team in the state.

Follow Nick Stevens on Twitter @NickStevensHSOT

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