Saturday’s ACC Football Championship Game against Pittsburgh wasn’t just an opportunity for Wake Forest to bring home a conference title for only the third time in its history.
It was also a chance at redemption for Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman.
Playing in his hometown at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium for the first time since the Duke’s Mayo Bowl last December, the fourth-year sophomore was hoping to erase the memory of a four-interception performance in a loss to Wisconsin.
Instead, history repeated itself. Hartman was picked off four more times and the Deacons were shut out over the final three quarters on the way to a convincing 45-21 setback.
“We really didn’t execute offensively in the second half at all,” a somber Wake coach Dave Clawson said afterward. “We gave our defense too many short fields. We had four turnovers. You play a good football team, you lose the turnover battle 4-0” and things aren’t usually going to end well.
Three of those four turnovers, all interceptions, came within a six-pass stretch midway through the second half and played a major role in Pittsburgh scoring 31 unanswered points to erase a 21-14 Wake lead after one quarter.
Each led directly to a Panthers touchdown, including a 19-yard pick-six by championship game MVP Erick Hallett II.
Because quarterbacks, like pitchers in baseball, often get more credit when they deserve when their teams win, Hartman’s teammate Jaquarii Roberson made it a point in his postgame comments to deflect some of the blame for Saturday’s loss off Hartman’s shoulders.
He finished the night completing 22 of 46 passes for 213 yards, but most of that came during the opening 15 minutes.
“Sam has played well all year,” said Roberson, who had a team-leading nine catches for 54 yards. “They put a lot of pressure up front, and he couldn’t really do much. It’s been tough on him, but we rally around him. We support him and love him and appreciate everything he’s done for us this year.”
The Deacons (10-3) gained 219 yards on their opening 27 plays against Pitt, getting into the end zone on each of their first three drives. They managed only 106 yards on 58 plays the rest of the way.
“Sometimes when you fall behind, you force things,” Clawson said. “This does not take away from the year he had. He’s disappointed. He puts a lot on himself. I’m confident he’ll bounce back. He’s mentally tough and he’s our leader, and he’s a great quarterback.”
Hartman, a second-team All-ACC selection, has already set single-season team records for passing yardage (3,711) and passing touchdowns (34) with one game still to play.
He was not made available to the media after Saturday’s loss.
Another quarterback whose dream season took a nightmarish turn in a conference championship game Saturday was Appalachian State’s Chase Brice.
Although the former Clemson and Duke transfer managed to avoid the kind of turnovers that plagued Hartman and haunted his ill-fated 2020 season with the Blue Devils, he was ineffective with the Sun Belt Conference title on the line in a 24-16 loss to Louisiana.
Brice averaged 241.8 passing yards per game during the regular season, but he was only able to complete 12 of 30 passes for 119 yards against a Ragin’ Cajun defense that sold out to keep the Mountaineers (10-3) from beating it through the air. He was also sacked three times.
App State coach Shawn Clark said afterward that he knew “it’s going to be a long day” when his offense struggled to run the ball against an opponent playing two deep safeties.
“We just couldn’t get into the rhythm that we’re used to,” Clark said.
“(Louisiana has) a really good defense,” added Mountaineers wide receiver Thomas Hennigan. “That didn’t intimidate us going into it. I thought we played hard, but you have to give them credit. They came to play hard too.”
The good news for Brice and Hartman is that both will have an opportunity to bounce back quickly and finish the season on a positive note.
App State will play Western Kentucky in the Boca Raton Bowl on Dec. 18, while the Deacons were selected to take on Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
For Hartman, the healing process began even before he and his teammates left the field at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday. It came in the form of a pep talk from his coach following the fourth interception.
Clawson told the Deacons leader that the loss was a team effort, not an individual one.
“Sometimes you leave a game and you’re mad and you feel you lost to a lesser football team. I thought Pitt outplayed us today,” Clawson said. “They outplayed us at the line of scrimmage. They executed better than we did. 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 do not take away from that.”