Wake Forest defeats Rutgers in Gator Bowl

The 38-10 victory gives Wake Forest their second 11-win season in program history and their first since 2006


Essex Thayer

The Demon Deacons celebrate their second 11-3 season in program history after defeating Rutgers in the Gator Bowl.

Essex Thayer, Sports Editor

After a devastating loss to Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship, there was one silver lining remaining for Wake Forest — an opportunity to end their season on a high note with a win in a premier bowl game.

On Friday, nine days after the Scarlet Knights brought the Gator Bowl back to life, the Demon Deacons brought that silver lining to fruition, defeating Rutgers 38-10 in Jacksonville.

On Dec. 22, the Gator Bowl’s chances of being played came into serious question when Texas A&M, Wake Forest’s original opponent, pulled out of the bowl due to roster issues related to the NFL Draft, transfers and COVID-19.

Thankfully for the Demon Deacons, Rutgers filled their place and gave Wake Forest one final shot to play in the 2021 season. 

With the victory, Wake Forest achieved an 11-win season for just the second time in program history (2006 was the first time). For head coach Dave Clawson, getting to 11 wins is a fulfillment of a mantra that began at the beginning of the season — “Good To Great”.

“When the year started, we came up with a theme of ‘Good to Great,’ and you don’t throw that out there unless you think you can really achieve it,” Clawson said after the game. “The credit belongs to our players. To get a group of 18 to 22, 23 and this year maybe a few 24-year-olds to buy into that goal and sacrifice for each other and truly put the team ahead of themselves is really hard to do. Our guys did that, and that’s why we’re in this position.” 

Clawson continued: “We are talented. We have good players, but there’s a lot of talented teams that have a lot of good players that don’t find a way to get double-digit wins. We’re not here if we don’t have those intangible qualities, and our football team has that.”

The one player who perhaps most benefited from one final opportunity to play this season was Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman. After throwing four interceptions in the ACC Championship, Hartman rebounded in the Gator Bowl, completing 23 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns. Hartman was named the MVP of the game, and he will be back next season to compete for the Demon Deacons.

I think for recruits coming in and guys looking at Wake Forest …it’s a reminder that we’re playing ball here, and that’s what you can do at a high level of execution. When you buy into something bigger than yourself, you can get it done.”

— Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman

In the first quarter, the Wake Forest offense began the game the same way they started off against Pittsburgh — efficient and effective. Led by 26-yard and 16-yard completions to redshirt freshman Taylor Morin and redshirt senior Donald Stewart, the Demon Deacons marched down to the six-yard line. From there, Hartman connected with redshirt senior Brandon Chapman in the left flat for the touchdown.

Despite preparing for the game on eight days’ notice, the Rutgers offense acquitted themselves well in their first drive against the Demon Deacon defense. Using three different quarterbacks over the course of the series, the Scarlet Knights primarily relied on their rushing attack to lead to offense down the field. Along with two completions from senior Noah Vedral for 38 yards, Rutgers rushed the ball seven times, including a 12-yard touchdown scamper by Aaron Young to even the score. It would be their only touchdown.

On their second drive on offense, Hartman kept the series alive with his feet, running for nine yards on a third-and-seven. Then, with receiver Jaquarii Roberson out to prepare for the NFL Draft, Hartman began finding his primary target — redshirt sophomore A.T. Perry. 

After a 10-yard completion to Perry to move the Demon Deacons just outside the red zone, Hartman connected with Perry again for a 29-yard pass on third down. After the reception, at the last second, Perry contorted his body inside the pylon for the touchdown.

On the following drive, it appeared that Wake Forest was going to force the first three-and-out of the game, stopping quarterback Johnny Langan on third down, but defensive tackle Miles Fox pulled him down by his face mask, giving the Scarlet Knights a fresh set of downs. The extra opportunity proved to be essential for Rutgers, who moved all the way to the Wake Forest nine-yard line. There, the Demon Deacon defense stood tall, holding the offense to a field goal.

The ensuing drive for Wake Forest also ended in a field goal, allowing the Demon Deacons to maintain their lead. Despite three completions for 45 yards that saw Wake Forest move to the red zone, a sack forced a field goal from junior kicker Nick Sciba. 

Following a punt for both teams, the Rutgers offense found its rhythm once again. Led by completions of 10 and 18 yards, the Scarlet Knights found themselves at the seven-yard line, poised to score. But Wake Forest cornerback Gavin Holmes had other plans. On third-and-five, Holmes jumped in front of a pass for a goal-line interception that gave possession back to Wake Forest.

To end the half, the Deacons used the turnover to march 87 yards down the field, aided by an 18-yard rush by freshman Justice Ellison. With the clock working against them, Clawson and the Demon Deacons had to settle for a field goal to extend their lead to 10.

On the second play from scrimmage at the beginning of the second half, freshman quarterback Gavin Wimsatt launched a deep ball that went well past his intended receiver and into the hands of defensive back Zion Keith for the second interception of the game. The Deacon offense could not capitalize on the mistake and was forced to punt.

Following a Rutgers punt, the Wake Forest offense once again worked their way into the red zone, only to come away with a field goal. Following a 28-yard reception to freshman receiver Ke’Shawn Williams and two completions to Perry for 35 yards, the Deacons were stopped at the five-yard line. From there, Sciba converted on his third field goal attempt of the game.

With the field goal, Sciba took hold of the second place in all-time field goal percentage in NCAA history. One more conversion would have seen him tie the record. But that kick was Sciba’s last for Wake Forest, as he will head to the NFL Draft in April.

After stopping the Scarlet Knights on fourth down, the Wake Forest offense secured the game on the following series. On third-and-three, Hartman provided the majority of the yardage on the drive, rushing down the left sideline for 35 yards. Then, on the following play, he found Morin for 18 yards. After two unsuccessful goal-line rushes by Ellison, Hartman took the ball into his own hands, tossing another touchdown to Chapman. A two-point conversion to Perry gave the Demon Deacons a 31-10 lead.

Following another fourth-down turnover by Rutgers, the Wake Forest offense ran the remainder of the clock off the game, adding a final touchdown along the way with a 27-yard run by Ellison.

With “Wake… Forest” chants breaking out across TIAA Bank Field, several Demon Deacons showered Clawson in a Gatorade bath and then rushed the field to celebrate.

Following the game, looking much drier, Clawson took pride in a “great team win,” that was part of a “really special week.” He also touched upon how much it meant to send the seniors, who have given so much to the program, out with a win.

“It’s [been] a fun week, but also an emotional week,” Clawson said. “It’s hard to see this year end. I told [the players] last night. If we could get together in one week with the same group and do it all again, I would sign up. Some of them are back, but guys like Luke Masterson, Tra Redd, Sulaiman Kamara, Brandon Chapman … Miles Fox, a bunch of them, you can replace them as players, it’s hard to replace them as people.”

Clawson continued: “They’ve been incredible leaders for our program, and we’re going to miss them. But we’re going to enjoy this one. And this was a historic season. We tied the record for the best season in Wake Forest history, and we’re hopefully part of a debate of what the greatest team is. And the 2006 team was an incredible team, but the 2021 team was a really good team as well, and we’re proud that we were a part of it.”

On top of a historic 2021 season, the Demon Deacons are looking to repeat and possibly surpass that performance in the coming season. After the game, Hartman spoke with confidence about what’s to come, especially for incoming recruits.

“I think that it’s just going to be something we can piggyback off of next year,” Hartman said. “I think for recruits coming in and guys looking at Wake Forest …it’s a reminder that we’re playing ball here, and that’s what you can do at a high level of execution. When you buy into something bigger than yourself, you can get it done.”

After this year’s success, along with Wake Forest retaining most of its prolific offense, there is a belief that a previously-underestimated program might finally begin earning the respect of the college football community.

When asked if he hopes Wake Forest gains that recognition, Hartman responded: “I hope not. Go Deacs,” and promptly walked off the stage.

Fortunately, that is not the end of the story. Hartman and the Demon Deacons will be back in 2022 looking to create even more history and defend their ACC Atlantic crown. Their campaign will begin on Sep. 1, 2022, against VMI at Truist Stadium.