The tears came quickly. Emeka Emezie knew what had happened, what it meant when he lost control of the football and it bounced away, out of his reach, toward dark and cold oblivion.
So Emezie cried on the sideline, bereft, inconsolable, even before the officials had reviewed their decision, as if he knew deep down what the answer was going to be. No one could save him, not replay, not anyone. He had victory in his hands, and he let it slip away, and there was no going back, and now his head was in his hands.
Can you possibly imagine feeling like you singlehandedly doomed your team to defeat, let down your teammates, broke the heart of an entire fan base? You’d cry too.
“i’m so sorry wolf pack nation,” Emezie tweeted at 11:06 p.m. Saturday, 17 minutes after N.C. State’s 30-24 loss at Wake Forest became official.
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The reality, the truth of the matter, couldn’t be more different. Emezie’s fumble at the goal line with a chance to score the go-ahead touchdown is the play everyone will remember, will make him the target of the cruel bile of those phony, soulless fans who project their own self-loathing on the players who they think fail them – and they were out there Saturday night, oozing around the internet, despite a plethora of extraordinarily kind responses to Emezie’s tweet – but there was plenty of blame to go around. N.C. State didn’t lose because Emezie had the ball knocked out of his hands.
It was because N.C. State’s vaunted defensive line was frozen into inaction by Wake Forest’s run-pass-option offense, unable to get any pressure on quarterback John Wolford. It was because Wolford outplayed Ryan Finley, who threw an interception in the end zone on the game’s final, unnecessarily hurried play. It was because Kelvin Harmon, a future NFL receiver, had three uncharacteristic drops. It was because Nyheim Hines left the game injured.
It was because Wake Forest made more plays than N.C. State, which, like the South Carolina loss, could not capitalize on a decided advantage in yards, plays, first downs and time of possession.
But it’s Emezie whose name will forever be linked with this loss, unfair as it may be.
He was milliseconds away from being the hero, coming from deep on the depth chart in the absence of the injured Stephen Louis and with Harmon struggling to score two touchdowns, including the game-winner. His first touchdown catch, to tie the score at 21 in the third quarter, was a beauty, grabbing the waist-high pass while dancing inside the pylon.
He had two catches already on what was shaping up to be N.C. State’s go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, down only six thanks to B.J. Hill’s block of an extra point, and Finley showed no hesitation throwing to Emezie at the left pylon with two minutes to play. Emezie caught the pass at the 1-yard line, turned to his left and tried to extend his arms across the goal line. He was already starting to bobble it at that point, and as Demetrius Kemp hacked at the ball, it came loose. Kemp fell on it in the end zone.
NC State football coach Dave Doeren talks about the Wolfpack's loss to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, NC Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.
And if there were permanent cameras on the goal line, which of course there should be, just like there are above hockey nets, maybe there would have been a replay that showed Emezie holding on the millisecond longer it would have taken to score. The replays that did exist were inconclusive at best and showed him losing control before the plane of the goal line at worst.
There have been whispers all season about how Emezie, a 6-3 true freshman, was a potential star. He hasn’t had many chances, playing behind Harmon and Louis and Jakobi Meyers and Maurice Trowell and the rest of N.C. State’s more experienced receiving corps.
This was his moment, and the football slipped away from him, and the game slipped away from N.C. State, and as Tony Adams, the senior lineman, put a hand on Emezie’s shoulder as they sat on the bench, Emezie looked like he felt like the universe was collapsing in on him.
“He was brokenhearted, as you’d as expect him to be,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “He was as excited as you’ve ever seen a kid after his first touchdown. We were thrilled for him. And we feel for him. It was obviously not intentional. He didn’t have good ball security, and he was swinging it as he was going in, and he’ll learn from it. It’s just too bad it was that play.”
Emezie will remember that feeling, no question. He should also remember it wasn’t his fault, that his teammates must share the blame, and that there are almost certainly better days ahead for Emezie, even if there are too many days this N.C. State team will look back upon with regret. Saturday night was one of them, as much of one as any this season, perhaps in many seasons. That’s bigger than one play. That’s bigger than one player.
NC State's Bradley Chubb talks about the Wolfpack's loss to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem, NC Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock