WINSTON-SALEM — After qualifying for the postseason in each of the past five years, the Wake Forest football team adopted the motto “From Good to Great” for 2021 as it set its sights on bigger things than just another bowl trip.
Saturday night at Truist Field, the Deacons took a major step toward accomplishing that goal.
And they didn’t have to be great to do it.
Quarterback Sam Hartman was intercepted three times but overcame them to throw for three touchdowns, while a defense that continued to have its problems was good enough when it had to be to hold off No. 21 NC State for a 45-42 victory that keeps Wake in the driver’s seat for the ACC Atlantic Division title.
A win next Saturday at Clemson or the following week at Boston College will clinch the title and a spot in the ACC Championship Game for coach Dave Clawson’s 13th-ranked team.
“I certainly don’t feel like we played a very good offensive game tonight even though we scored 45 points,” Clawson said. “We weren’t as clean as we usually are. We threw picks, which is unusual for Sam, but when we had to make plays at the end, those guys made them.”
The biggest of those plays came late in the fourth quarter of the back-and-forth game, played in front of a sold-out Senior Night crowd.
After State cut Wake’s lead to 38-35 with 8:07 remaining on a touchdown and two-point conversion, both on passes from Devin Leary to Emeka Emezie, the Deacons answered back with a decisive 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 6½ minutes of the remaining time.
Along the way, Wake (9-1, 6-0 ACC) converted three third downs, all of seven yards or more, before Justice Ellison ran four yards into the end zone for what proved to be the clinching touchdown.
Ellison, getting the bulk of the work in place of injured starter Christian Beal-Smith, ran for 56 yards on 17 carries and scored three times in all — including a receiving touchdown earlier in the fourth quarter.
“Guys stepped up,” said Hartman, who despite the three picks and an uncharacteristic 20-of-47 passing performance still managed to throw for 290 yards in the game. “It wasn’t a pretty game by any means, but we pulled it out.
“That’s football in November. It was a championship game, and I’m really proud of my guys for sticking through it and battling injuries. That’s what we do.”
Neither team made things easy on themselves in the 115th renewal of the ACC’s longest continuous rivalry.
They turned the ball over three times each. Both had their usually reliable kickers miss field goals. Both lost key players to targeting calls. And both gave up big, momentum-swinging plays on special teams.
Wake’s self-inflicted mistakes just turned out to be less costly than those incurred by State.
Of the six combined turnovers, only one was converted into points.
That came late in the first half when Wake cornerback J.J. Roberts stripped the ball from State receiver Devin Carter after a 13-yard catch. Teammate Traveon Redd picked it up and returned it 47 yards to the Wolfpack 5. Hartman ran it in on the next play to give the Deacons a 21-6 lead.
“We treat turnovers like gold here,” said Redd. “We fly to the ball and when it’s on the ground, we pick it up.”
The turnover and the touchdown it helped produce seemed to ignite both teams after a slow, sloppy start. It was one of four scores between them over the final 2:05 of the half.
State (7-3, 4-2) answered right back when Zonovan Knight ran the ensuing kickoff back 72 yards to set up a touchdown pass from Leary to Emezie one play later. After a quick three-and-out by the Deacons, the Wolfpack struck again when Leary hit a wide-open Carter for a 21-yard touchdown that brought the visitors back to within 21-20.
Leary was 37 of 59 for 408 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Both Emezie (10 catches) and Carter (seven catches) accounted for better than 130 receiving yards and two scores.
But instead of going into halftime with the momentum, State gave some of it back to Wake by deciding to squib kick the ball to the Deacons instead of sending it out of the end zone with 28 seconds remaining. Once Tyler Morin returned it 43 yards to midfield, it proved to be enough time to produce a Nick Sciba field goal that ended up being the final margin of victory.
Although the Wolfpack was able to regain the lead when Knight ran the second half kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown, Wake never flinched, immediately responding with a 12-play drive to go back ahead 31-27.
And the Deacons never trailed again.
“We just weren’t good enough tonight in certain areas,” State coach Dave Doeren said. “Our kids fought hard at the end and gave us a chance at the end. Really, the story of the night is that we couldn’t get off the field on third and long. That hurt us. And our third down offense hurt us. Those two things accumulated throughout the game.”
State was just 3 of 14 on third downs while allowing Wake to convert 10 of 19 opportunities. It also hurt itself by committing 14 penalties for 119 yards, many of which came on pass interference or defensive holding calls in the secondary, and by settling for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns early in the game.
And then there was the Wolfpack’s play calling. Although the Deacons ranked 13th in the ACC in rushing offense, having allowed three of its past five opponents to roll up better than 330 yards on the ground, State threw the ball 59 times while attempting only 14 planned runs.
“They had some injuries at corner and we felt like we could run by them,” Doeren said. “It was really more of trying to take advantage of what we were getting matchup-wise.”
The result all but ended State’s chances of winning its first Atlantic Division title and a shot at playing for its first overall ACC championship since 1979. Although Wake still has work left to do, its fans started the celebration early by storming the field after the final gun.
It was a gesture Clawson said was deserved.
“That might be as hard as I’ve ever had a football team play for 60 minutes,” Clawson said. “It was just an outstanding effort. That was a high-level game between two great teams. I’m really proud of our guys that we found a way to win.”