RALEIGH — The rain that hung over much of the area Saturday tapered off as the final game of the day progressed, but Wake Forest had already found itself in a hole early on, and when it rained, it poured for the Cougars.
An already powerful Mallard Creek team took advantage of prime field position offered by several early Wake Forest missteps to run away with a 59-21 win in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA championship.
Wake Forest (12-4) scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns in less than 90 seconds, but the Cougars had dug far too deep a hole with a tumultuous first half to make a large enough dent in the deficit.
“I would love for us to have played the first half without those mistakes and seen how Mallard Creek would have reacted to a close second-half game, but also with our kids getting momentum knowing they’re in the second half. ... We just had way too many turnovers, and the field position – giving that offense a short field, we were doomed,” said Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas.
Mallard Creek (16-0) averaged 54.6 points in the postseason, rolling over opponents with a roster loaded with several college prospects, and the Mavericks quickly loaded the scoreboard off of Wake Forest mistakes.
Wake Forest quarterback Mack Moore threw his second interception of the year on the Cougars' second possession, giving Mallard Creek the ball on the Wake Forest 26-yard line, which ended in a 31-yard field goal for the Mavericks.
On its next possession, Wake Forest botched the snap on a punt attempt, giving Mallard Creek the ball on the Wake Forest 3. The Mavericks punched that in to go up 17-0 in the first quarter.
Wake Forest running back Devante Reynolds broke free for a 36-yard run to start the second quarter, getting the Cougars over midfield for the first time Saturday, but that gain was followed by a five-yard rushing loss and a sack for a loss of three yards, eventually setting up a fourth-and-nine situation from the Mallard Creek 30 before a Cougars false start pushed Wake Forest back another five yards.
Looking to make up some ground, Wake Forest went for it, and though the Cougars’ gained just four yards on the pass play, Wake Forest was bailed out by a Mallard Creek personal foul, giving the Cougars a first down from the 19-yard line.
Junior quarterback Mack Moore kept it from there, putting Wake Forest on the board with a 20-yard rush.
Any momentum gained by Moore's touchdown was quickly snatched back as Mallard Creek tight end Jaylen Samuels ran in a 62-yard score for his third touchdown of the game.
The N.C. State recruit put on a show at Carter-Finley Stadium, accounting for four of Mallard Creek's five first-half touchdowns. Samuels hauled in a 12-yard reception from quarterback James Smith on another short-field possession after a blocked Wake Forest punt gave Mallard Creek the ball on the Wake Forest 24. Samuels would run in another touchdown on a 69-yard score in the fourth quarter.
“Early on I want to say that we were turning the ball over and giving them great field position, and we never got a true chance to see what we could do on offense, because at that time when they go up 17-0, our offensive guys didn’t have a pop or didn’t have any momentum,” Lucas said.
Wake Forest's defense held the Mavericks on the next Mallard Creek possession, forcing the West champion to punt for the first time.
Cougars senior Kendall Massey muffed the catch, and Mallard Creek recovered at the one-yard line. Lawrence Pittman ran in the score from there to put Mallard Creek ahead 38-7 at the half.
“It was no secret that they liked to run the football,” said Mallard Creek coach Michael Palmieri. “Once they threw that first pick, I felt they were a little gun shy throwing the ball and that worked right into our hands. We also want our special teams on the field. ... When we shorten the field up for the offense, that was our game plan all game.”
Wake Forest finished the 168 yards of total offense, less than half Mallard Creek’s 363.
Down 59-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Cougars recovered two Mallard Creek fumbles and scored after both with Reynolds hauling in a 15-yard pass from Moore and Massey ran in his recovery for a 20-yard score.
“In the fourth quarter when the score was getting out of hand, it especially made me proud to see the guys keep fighting through the game,” Lucas said.
Wake Forest entered the game as the lowest seeded team to make the finals since the NCHSAA switched to a subdivision system in 2001.
The Cougars, seeded No. 12, never played a home game during their playoff run, gutting out upset wins on the road to claim the 4AA East regional title, but the run stopped with an undefeated Mallard Creek team taking the program to its first state title.
The Cougars were in the title game for the second time in program history, and the second time in four years after falling to Matthews Butler 44-0 in the 2010 final.