Wake, Pitt expect explosive ACC championship game

The Demon Deacons and Panthers will both bring plenty of offense to Bank of America Stadium

Quarterback Sam Hartman has led an explosive offense that will look to carry Wake Forest to a conference title when the Demon Deacons face Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game on Saturday in Charlotte. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Wake Forest was picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division in a preseason poll taken at the league’s Football Kickoff media event in Charlotte, without a single first place vote.

But coach Dave Clawson knew something the media members casting ballots didn’t.

“I’ve coached for 33 years and I’ve been a head coach for 22 years, and I have a feeling when I have a good team,” he said.

“I just really felt after going through COVID last year, some of the leadership I saw emerge, some of the progress the younger players made, the way we executed during spring practice, how much the players were engaged in the summer, how much extra time they were up in the offices … I just really felt this year we had a chance to not just be good, but to be really good.”

Clawson’s feeling proved spot on.

Led by quarterback Sam Hartman and a record-setting offense that ranks third nationally at 42.9 points per game, the 17th-ranked Deacons rose to the top of the Atlantic standings and the national polls by reeling off eight straight wins to start the season.

They took control of the division by outlasting NC State on Senior Day. Then after failing to close things out at Clemson the following week, they took care of business on Saturday with an emphatic 41-10 win at Boston College.

The victory earned Wake (10-2, 7-1 ACC) its second Atlantic title and a date against Pittsburgh in this week’s ACC Championship Game. Kickoff at Bank of America Stadium is 8 p.m. with television coverage on ABC.

“We’re happy to be in the championship game,” Clawson said. “Our goal was to be in this game and then to win this game. We accomplished the first part of it. Now our goal this week is to accomplish the second half of that.”

To do that, the Deacons will have to beat a Pittsburgh team that’s almost as big a surprise as they are.

The 16th-ranked Panthers (10-2, 7-1) were picked to finish fourth in the Coastal Division, receiving only one of the 147 first-place votes that were cast.

It seemed that low expectation might be warranted after Pitt was beaten at home by Western Michigan on Sept. 18.

But with quarterback Kenny Pickett putting up Heisman Trophy-worthy passing numbers and receiver Jordan Addison earning recognition as a Biletnikoff Award finalist, coach Pat Narduzzi’s team has won nine of its last 10 — including an impressive 27-17 conquest of Clemson.

While the Panthers run a pro-style offense that relies heavily on Pickett’s strong arm and ability to move around in the pocket, the Deacons do the majority of their damage with deceptive run-pass options designed to keep opposing defenses guessing.

Their styles are vastly different, their results are not. Because Pitt ranks second in the ACC and fourth nationally in scoring offense at an almost identical 42.8 points per game, Saturday’s championship matchup promises to be a high-scoring affair.

“A lot of points are going to be scored in games nowadays with all the RPOs when you’re facing a great quarterback like Hartman with all the amazing talent he has around him at the wide receiver position,” Narduzzi said. “We’re going to practice on defense, we’re going to practice on offense, we’re going to practice on special teams to try and eliminate the scoring and try to score at least one more point than Wake Forest does.”

Clawson is taking a similar outlook, saying he’s “kind of hoping we can get a few stops” while acknowledging “it will be hard.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will earn the ACC’s automatic bid to the New Year’s Six, which this year means a trip to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl.

After Wake’s five straight postseason appearances, though, the bowl destination is secondary to the bigger prize that’s available to the Deacons — whose only other conference titles came in 1970 and 2006.

“When we went into the season, I said this to the staff: We’ve been really good. We’ve been consistent. We’ve been to five consecutive bowls. But we didn’t ever have that one breakout season,” Clawson said. “I don’t want to put pressure on us. But I really believe that if we’re going to have that breakout year, this year’s our best opportunity.”

While the progression from good to great takes talent, experience and a solid game plan — all elements Wake possesses — it also takes a few lucky bounces. And Clawson is the first to admit that Wake has had its share of those this season, a trend he hopes will continue Saturday.

“To have a year like this you have to be good,” he said. “You also have to be a little fortunate.”