Wake Forest, UNC could hit century mark again in key game

The Deacons and Tar Heels combined for 225 points in their last two meetings

UNC quarterback Drake Maye, left, has emerged as a Heisman Trophy candidate, while Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman has struggled the last two weeks. (Mike Caudill / AP Photo)

Based on what we’ve seen from the Wake Forest and North Carolina offenses so far this season, we can probably expect the two in-state rivals to “keep it 100” again when the teams meet on Saturday.

Keep it 110, to be more accurate. This is the third straight year that the two teams have met. Carolina won in 2020 by a 59-53 score. They followed up that shootout with a wild 58-55 game last season. Can both teams hit 50 again and blow past 110 total points?

“We’ve had two unbelievable games with them the last two years at home,” UNC coach Mack Brown said.

Brown’s Tar Heels appear to be the more likely of the two teams to do their part to make this a third straight offensive showcase. After seeing the best quarterback in school history move on to the NFL after last season, UNC seems to have found an even better replacement. Drake Maye is on pace to eclipse most of the freshman records Sam Howell set in 2019, and he’s even worked his way onto the list of Heisman Trophy candidates.

“He’s the buzz,” Brown said of his quarterback. “There’s a lot of people talking about him across the country.” Brown has had three of his Texas players make the trip to New York as a Heisman finalist, with Ricky Williams winning in 1998. Vince Young (2005) and Colt McCoy (2009) finished second and third, respectively.

Maye might not be the favorite to take the hardware, but he’s got the Tar Heels thinking of some of the goals the team had in mind prior to last season, Howell’s junior year. In addition to a potential Heisman campaign for their quarterback, UNC finds itself moving up the College Football Playoff rankings and pushing for a shot at the ACC crown. The Tar Heels need one win in their final three games to clinch the Coastal Division and face Clemson in Charlotte in December.

Maye is a big reason why. He became the third quarterback in school history — joining Howell and Mitch Trubisky — to throw 30 touchdowns in a season, and he’ll hit 3,000 yards once he tallies 36 against the Deacs on Saturday. He’s also UNC’s leading rusher with 513 yards, a 4.5 yards per carry average and four scores.

The Tar Heels’ defense has also done its part to help make a shootout likely. UNC has given up 35 or more points in three games this season. Under coordinator Gene Chizik, who took over a beleaguered UNC defense prior to the Tar Heels’ last trip to the ACC title game in 2015, the defense was making progress, cutting its points allowed average from 39.5 in the first four games to 23.3 in the next four and the yards allowed from 495 to 420.

Injuries may counteract much of that progress, however. The defense has lost three starters — all from the defensive line or pass rush — in the last two weeks to season-ending injuries.

The battle-worn UNC defense may be just what Wake Forest’s offense needs. A top-five offense in the country last year, Wake started this season looking like more of the same. After seven games, the Deacs had topped 40 points five times and were averaging 41.4 points per game. They were 6-1 and ranked in the top 10, thanks in large part to veteran quarterback Sam Hartman.

Then the bottom dropped out for Hartman and the Wake offense. After scoring a relatively low 14 points in the first half against Louisville two weeks ago, Hartman turned the ball over on the first five possessions after halftime and finished the nightmare half with three interceptions and three lost fumbles. That included a pair of Louisville pick-sixes on Hartman passes.

Hartman was better against NC State last week but still threw three more interceptions in a loss. His pass protection has also evaporated as he’s been sacked 11 times over the two games.

The good news for Wake is that, even before the injuries, pass pressure wasn’t a hallmark of the UNC defense. The Tar Heels are last in the ACC with 14 sacks on the year.

Like everything else, Wake’s run game has struggled over the last two games, managing about 75 yards in each of the two losses. Returning home and facing an old rival looking to use the Deacs as a steppingstone to better things may be just what the doctor ordered for the Wake offense.

“We’re back at home and have a really good team coming in,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “It’s an in-state rival. We have no choice, right? … It’s a prime-time game on ESPN2 against one of our Big Four rivals who is playing really good football right now. This is what we signed up for.

“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We’ve been on the road the last two weeks and played two really good football teams and didn’t play well enough to win. We have good players and I still think we’re a good football team. This is the tough part of the schedule. The last two weeks we haven’t been up to the task or the challenge.”

Shootout or not, the stakes will be high for both teams on Saturday.