Wake Forest falls to Pittsburgh in ACC Championship

After scoring 21 points on their first three drives, the Demon Deacons did not score in the final 48 minutes of the game


Essex Thayer, Sports Editor

Nearly a year ago, Wake Forest arrived in Charlotte to take on Wisconsin in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Against the Badgers, the offense started strong, opening to a 14-point lead. Then, quarterback Sam Hartman threw four interceptions. The Deacons lost.

Last Saturday, almost a year later, Wake Forest returned to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game. The team was looking to exorcize those demons from the bowl game of last year, and once again, the offense started strong. Then, they fell apart. Hartman threw four interceptions. The Deacons lost another heartbreaker in the Queen City.

“Congratulations to the Pitt Panthers and Coach [Pat] Narduzzi,” Wake Forest Head Coach Dave Clawson said after the game. “They played a heck of a game. They played better than us tonight.”

Clawson continued: “It’s really been a special season, and we’re disappointed we didn’t win the game. I don’t think that takes away from the season we’ve had – we’ve had a great season. We’re the Atlantic Division champions, and we have a chance to go get a Bowl Championship.”

To begin the game, it was the Wake Forest defense that struggled. On a third-and-five at the 42-yard line, Kenny Pickett escaped to the right and found open field. With Deacons in front of him, Pickett made a move to slide, but then pulled up and sprinted past the remaining defenders for the game’s opening touchdown.

After the game, Clawson expressed his surprise at the move. 

“I’ve never, ever seen that before,” the head coach said. “You train your players, that, as soon as a quarterback starts sliding, you stop. You can’t touch him or it’s going to be a penalty. He started his slide, and our kids stopped playing.”

Clawson continued: “That is certainly something for the rule book that … they have to look at and come up with a rule for. There’s no rule for it, so the officials were correct in letting it go. If that’s the rule, I’ll just have my guy fake kneeing all the way down the field. It’s something that I think the NCAA is going to have to look at.”

Despite being punched in the gut on defense, the Wake Forest offense responded to even the score. Aided by two Pittsburgh penalties and a third-down breaking nine-yard run by Hartman, the Demon Deacons moved 75 yards down the field on a pass-heavy drive. On first down at the five-yard line, the Wake Forest offense hit paydirt with a touchdown pass to redshirt junior receiver Jaquarii Roberson.

With Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner Kenny Pickett at quarterback, the Panthers regained the lead in just four plays. After an incomplete pass to open the drive, Pickett completed his next three passes for 18, 35 and 22 yards, respectively. 

The 22-yard pass for the touchdown was the most problematic for the Demon Deacons. After dropping back in the shotgun, Pickett dumped the ball off in the flat to running back Rodney Hammond Jr., who only had green grass ahead of him and found the endzone for the score.

But, once again, the Wake Forest offense kept the Demon Deacons in the game. The game-tying drive for the Deacons was all Hartman. Of the 13 plays in the drive, 11 were either Hartman passes or rushes. Twice, Hartman hit redshirt sophomore receiver A.T. Perry for 11 and 15 yards, respectively. Hartman also ran the ball twice himself during the drive, the second of which was an 11-yard scamper for the touchdown.

On their third drive on defense, the Wake Forest defense finally found a way to get off the field. After forcing Pittsburgh to a fourth-down on the 31-yard line, kicker Sam Scarton sent the 48-yard field goal wide left to keep the game even at 14.

With the game’s advantage leaning towards them for the first time, the Wake Forest offense kept their foot on the gas. Able to move down the field with the help of a pass interference penalty, the Demon Deacons capitalized once in Pittsburgh territory. 

Following a 16-yard rush by redshirt sophomore Christian Turner, Hartman uncorked a 26-yard pass to redshirt freshman receiver Taylor Morin for the touchdown. This would be the last time Wake Forest scored in the entire game.

Following another stop by the Wake Forest defense, Hartman threw his first interception of the game, an overthrown third-down pass to Morin that fell into the hands of Marquis Williams. Following the interception, the Demon Deacon defense held strong, forcing Pittsburgh into a turnover-on-downs. 

With nine minutes remaining in the half, a 39-yard punt return by Jordan Addison gave Pittsburgh solid field position. A 20-yard pass to Lucas Krull moved the Panthers to the 9-yard line. From there, a five-yard rush and a four-yard touchdown pass to Jared Wayne evened the score at 21.

With 55 seconds remaining before halftime, Pittsburgh was able to get on the scoreboard once again, much due to a 32-yard completion to Addison. The Deacon defense held strong following the completion, though, holding the Panthers to a field goal that give them a 24-21 lead at the end of the half.

For most of the third quarter, the game slowed down for both teams. After starting the quarter with six straight punts, Wake Forest lost possession for the fourth time of the quarter on Hartman’s second interception of the game. 

On third-and-10, Hartman targeted redshirt senior tight end Brandon Chapman over the middle, but he heavily overthrew his target. The ball found Pittsburgh defender Erick Hallett at the 45-yard line.

After the interception, Pittsburgh heavily relied on running back Israel Abanikanda to extend their lead. Along with a 20-yard completion to Addison, Abanikanda ran the ball three times for 30 yards. Abanikanda’s final rush, for 12 yards, saw him reach the endzone to make the score 31-21.

Needing to respond to keep the game alive, the Wake Forest offense began their next drive well. Hartman completed his first two pass attempts, but then, threw his third interception of the game.

On third-and-13, with the pass rush in his face, Hartman threw off his back foot in the direction of Perry, except the ball was thrown nearly five yards short. The pass was intercepted by A.J. Woods, who then returned the ball 73 yards, almost reaching the end zone. Two plays later, Pittsburgh was back in the end zone on a one-yard rush by Abanikanda.

Trailing by 17, the Demon Deacons were desperate. On their first play from scrimmage, Hartman threw perhaps his worst pass of the night, an attempt off his back foot towards Roberson, which was well-underthrown. The ball found Hallett, who returned the interception for a touchdown. It was Hallett’s second interception of the game, he went on to earn MVP honors.

 After the interception, Hartman sat alone on the bench for several minutes before being embraced by Clawson and several other players. After the game, Clawson was quick to support his quarterback, and referenced a bit of the conversation he had with him on the sideline.

“I said, this does not take away from the season you had,” Clawson said. “It’s not déjà-vu all over again. You’ve had a great year. You’re a big, big reason why we’re here. We did not lose this game because of that. They outplayed us.”

Clawson was also quick to shift blame away from Hartman.

“If we had won that game, we would have stolen it,” he said. “They deserved to win that game. Sam – I don’t want him to blame himself. This was not like the bowl game a year ago. He’s had a great year, and this one game and a few throws does not take away from that.”

Following Hartman’s fourth interception, Pittsburgh bled the remaining 11 minutes away. Neither team scored.

When the clocks hit zero, the Demon Deacon sideline was a sea of disappointment. Despite the sadness stemming from the loss, Clawson does not want the game to take away from what has been a program-changing season for Wake Forest.

“We’re not happy to be here,” Clawson said. “We wanted to win it. But you also have to have perspective. We’ve had a great season. We’ve had some incredible wins and some great celebrations. There were two really good teams here tonight, and one of them was going to leave unhappy. We wanted it to be Pitt, but it’s us.”

Clawson continued: “There’s nothing I can say that can take away that pain right now. You just hope, as time goes on and this gets more in the rear view mirror, that that disappointment is overshadowed by everything [we have] accomplished this year. To have 25,000 Wake Forest people here tonight, they created that moment, and I’m really proud of them. One game or one loss will never change that.”

Wake Forest will now have some time to shake off the loss before completing their season against Texas A&M at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 31. With a win over the Aggies, Wake Forest would secure their first 11-win season since 2006, and their second in program history.