Wake offense fizzles in ACC Championship Game loss to Pitt

After leading the Deacons to touchdowns on their first three drives, quarterback Sam Hartman was intercepted four times and Wake Forest failed to score again in a 45-21 loss

Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman (10) and receiver Donald Stewart (2) walk off the field in dejection after Saturday's ACC Championship Game loss to Pittsburgh at Bank of America Stadium. (P.J. Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

CHARLOTTE — Saturday’s ACC Championship Game between Wake Forest and Pittsburgh was the back-and-forth, high-scoring shootout it was expected to be.

For the first quarter, at least.

But after a wild opening 15 minutes that saw the teams combine for five touchdowns and 35 points, the Deacons’ explosive offense suddenly fizzled. 

Quarterback Sam Hartman was intercepted four times and Wake was shut out over its final 13 possessions, opening the door for the Panthers to put up 31 unanswered points and pull away for a 45-21 victory at Bank of America Stadium for their first ACC title.

“They played better than us tonight,” Deacons coach Dave Clawson said of Pitt, which became the first Coastal Division team since Virginia Tech in 2010 to win the conference championship. 

“After the first quarter, we really didn’t execute well on offense. We had too many turnovers and I don’t think we tackled as well as we needed to on defense. But when you play a good football team, a lot of times they’re responsible for that.”

It was the second time in as many years that Wake has suffered a disappointing setback at the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

The Deacons were beaten by Wisconsin by a nearly identical margin last December in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, a game that also got away in the second half thanks in part to four Hartman picks.

As was the case in that game, Wake once led Pitt 21-14 before the bottom fell out in the second half.

“You look at 45 points, but how many short fields off of punts and interceptions did they have? And they had a pick-six,” Clawson said. “It’s eerily similar to a game we had in the same stadium a year ago.”

It didn’t start out that way,

Coming in as the highest scoring team in the ACC and ranking third nationally with an average of 42.9 points per game, the Deacons (10-3) looked unstoppable the first three times they touched the ball.

With Hartman completing 11 of his first 16 passes for 114 yards, they answered two early Pitt touchdowns with scores of their own — a 5-yard pass to A.T. Perry and an 11-yard Hartman scramble. Then after the Wake defense produced the first stop of the night when the Panthers’ Sam Scarton missed a 48-yard field goal, Tyler Morin made a spectacular grab of a 26-yard pass in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown.

Tyler Morin catches a touchdown pass over Pitt defender M.J. Devonshire during the first quarter of Saturday’s ACC Championship Game in Charlotte (P.J. Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Between them, the teams combined for five touchdowns and 35 points in the first quarter alone, which wasn’t surprising considering that the Panthers (11-2) ranked just behind Wake in both the conference and nationally at 42.8 points per game.

Pitt, however, was the only one that scored from that point on, a fact Wake receiver Jaquarii Roberson said left him “very surprised.”

The Deacons gained 219 yards on 27 plays, getting into the end zone each time, on their first three drives. For the rest of the night, they managed only 106 more yards on 58 plays.

“It was tough,” said Roberson, who led Wake with nine catches for 54 yards. “We tried to get some momentum going, but it didn’t go our way. They just brought pressure up front, getting to the quarterback, forcing turnovers. Sam played well all year, but with the pressure they brought on him he couldn’t do much.”

In addition to the four interceptions — two by game MVP Erik Hallett II, the second of which going for a clinching 19-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter — Hartman was sacked five times.

He finished the night 22 of 46 for 213 yards. The redshirt sophomore quarterback who went to high school in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius wasn’t made available to the media afterward.

“We knew going into the game that we were going to have to make contested catches, and we didn’t,” Clawson said. “If they can cover you on the perimeter, there’s no reason for them to not keep heating you up, and so they just kept heating us up and creating single blocks.

“When you run the (run-pass option) system and you get blitzed, you get single blocks, and our answer is that we’ve got to win one-on-ones. (Pitt) won the one-on-ones on the perimeter more than we did.”

As for the interceptions, Clawson reasoned that “sometimes when you fall behind, you force things.”

Before that happened, though, the Deacons had two opportunities to extend their lead. The first ended with an interception by the Panthers’ Marquis Williams. The second came on a three-and-out that also included a 10-yard holding penalty.

It also became the turning point in the game when All-American receiver Jordan Addison returned the ensuing punt 41 yards to the Wake 32. Four plays later, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett found Jared Wayne for a 4-yard touchdown that tied the game.

And things snowballed from there.

Ryan Smenda tackles Pittsburgh running back Vincent Davis during the second half of Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh (P.J. Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

Pickett, a Heisman Trophy frontrunner who went 20 of 33 for 253 yards and set a single-season ACC record with his 42nd scoring pass, put his team ahead 24-21 at halftime by driving it 57 yards on five plays for a field goal in the final 55 seconds.

“You’ve got to keep stopping them. If they don’t score they can’t win,” Wake defensive tackle Miles Fox said. “They kept on scoring and scored a few more times than we did. We just have to play better on defense.”

Fox and his defensive teammates actually played better than the score indicates. The game got away from the Deacons because of the opportunistic play of their Pitt counterparts.

Hallett’s first interception led to a 12-yard touchdown by Israel Abanikanda. A 73-yard interception return by A.J. Woods, the longest in ACC Championship Game history, set up another Abanikanda touchdown run before Hallett capped the scoring with his pick-six.

“You play a good football team, you lose the turnover battle 4-0, and you’re going to lose the game,” said Clawson, whose team will now wait to learn its bowl destination, an announcement that will come sometime Sunday afternoon. “We wanted to be ACC champions, but this is still a championship football team, and we have a chance to go get a bowl championship. 

“I’m up here right now and I’m gutted. I mean, I’m dying inside and I know our players are. But time heals all wounds, and tomorrow will be rough and Monday will be not good, but Tuesday will get better, and we’ll start getting on our bowl opponent and we’ll try to go get that one, try to go get win No. 11, which would be a great accomplishment.”