WINSTON-SALEM — The Wake Forest football team was tested for the first time this season Saturday.
And it passed with flying colors.
After beating their first four opponents by 20 points or more, the 24th-ranked Deacons didn’t flinch after letting a pair of fourth quarter leads slip away. Instead, they put together a clutch 60-yard, 11-play drive that yielded Nick Sciba’s third field goal of the game and a 37-34 victory against Louisville at Truist Field.
Quarterback Sam Hartman threw for 324 yards and two touchdowns, while freshman Justice Ellison rushed for 41 of his 67 yards during the decisive final three minutes to lead Wake to only its second 5-0 start in the past 15 years.
“It felt like a heavyweight fight that whoever could survive the last punch would come back,” Deacons coach Dave Clawson said after his team improved to 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2011. “We played hard for 60 minutes. We never stopped competing. I’m really proud of Sam and our offense, and everytime (Louisville) scored they responded.”
The first of those responses came early in the final period after the Cardinals (3-2, 1-1 ACC) scored 10 unanswered points to knot the game at 27.
Hartman, bouncing back from an interception that set up the tying field goal, led Wake right back down the field — converting two key third downs before buying time with his legs and hitting A.T. Perry in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown with 3:52 remaining.
But the lead didn’t last long.
One play after Louisville nearly turned the ball over with a fumble it recovered on its own 25, quarterback Malik Cunningham connected with Tyler Harrell for a 75-yard score that got the Cardinals even and put the pressure back onto Hartman and the Deacons.
Not that it seemed to bother them.
“We expect the ‘worst’ to happen in each situation so we’re ready,” Hartman said. “You never want to say that the game is over against a team like Louisville and a quarterback like Cunningham.”
Cunningham threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more while accounting for 378 of his team’s 540 total yards. Hartman was just as productive, completing 23 of his 39 passes and running for 35 yards and a touchdown.
As was the case on the previous possession, Wake’s redshirt sophomore leader kept the final drive going with a big third down conversion. He then began working the clock by mixing Ellison’s runs with a series of short passes that milked the clock and forced the Cardinals to burn all three of their timeouts.
“When we got it back with three minutes, we weren’t going to go slow,” Clawson said. “At that point I felt our best chance was to win the game on offense. So I told (coordinator Warren Ruggiero) to stay aggressive and play fast. If we get to midfield, we’ll start slowing it down and potentially play for the field goal. We did not want to give them a lot of time.”
It was a strategy that worked to the letter.
Although they tried to finish Louisville off by getting into the end zone, the Deacons were more than happy to set the most accurate kicker in NCAA history up for his 29-yard game winner. Despite a high snap, brought down by holder Zach Murphy, Sciba — celebrating his 22nd birthday — didn’t disappoint.
The field goal was his 22nd straight and improved his career percentage to a nearly automatic 90.1.
“I want us to do our best possible and that would have been getting in the end zone, so I was obviously cheering for that,” said Sciba, who was lifted to his teammates shoulders and serenaded to a chorus of “Happy Birthday” in the locker room after his winning kick. “I was just staying ready in case my number was called.”
While Sciba’s last kick was the one that provided the points that put Wake over the top, it was another chip shot earlier in the game that proved just as important.
If not more so.
The 20-yarder on the last play before halftime sent the Deacons into the break with a 20-17 lead and was preceded by a controversial series of events that bailed Clawson out after he decided to try for a touchdown from the 1-yard line with just four seconds remaining.
Running back Christian Beal-Smith was stopped short of the goal line on the play, but somehow Wake managed to call timeout with one second still remaining on the clock. That allowed Sciba an opportunity to make the field goal that would ultimately become the difference in the game.
“I told the official that as soon as the ball was down I’m going to use a timeout,” Clawson said afterward. “It was a calculated risk. I hoped we had a second left, but to say I knew that would be a three-second play. … I got a little bit lucky. Sometimes luck helps.”
Those are the kinds of breaks, Clawson said, that can be more than just the difference in one important game.
“You go through a year and you have these one-score close games and if you’re going to have a special season, you’re going to find your way to win your share,” he said. “We did that today.”