On a record-tying night for Sam Hartman, he made one mistake that he couldn’t get back, and Wake ended the season with a loss that didn’t have to happen. Wake Forest falls to Duke 34-31 to end the regular season on a meager 7-5 note after being 6-1 in October.
Hartman went 26 of 42 passing for 347 yards and three touchdowns. The touchdown passes put him in a tie with Tajh Boyd of Clemson, (2010-2013), for most career touchdown passes with 107. But it was the one interception on a closing drive that ended any chance of a Wake Forest comeback. Hartman had been living dangerously throughout the night as he had no fewer than three potential interceptions that were dropped by Duke defensive backs.
Putting Up Points Or Getting Next To Nothing
Wake spent much of the night running an efficient but hot and cold offense. Meanwhile, Duke was ripping off big chunks of yardage thanks to missed tackles by the Demon Deacons’ defense. Wake Forest was on scoring drives or punting after just a handful of plays.
After the game Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson specified the lack of ability on the part of the defense to take away the big yardage play as the major contributor to the loss.
As usual, Wake was playing from behind Saturday night. Duke took 11 plays on its opening drive to get into range for a 42-yard Todd Pelino field goal and the early 3-0 lead.
Wake answered as Hartman took the Demon Deacons on an 11-play, 75-yard drive. Running back Justice Ellison converted a hard sprint to the right pylon for the final six yards and a 7-3 lead.
Duke’s Offense Has An Easy Time
Typical of the game, Wake could not hold any lead. And with the defense giving up huge yards after the catch, missing routine tackles, and surrendering huge chunks of yards, it did not take Duke long to re-take the lead. Quarterback Riley Leonard hit receiver Sahmir Hagans in the flat along the right sideline. Three missed Wake Forest tackles later, Hagans had a 30-yard touchdown, and the Blue Devils had a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
The lead grew as Wake continued to let receivers get behind the defense. The defensive secondary broke down and Leonard had Jalon Calhoun five yards behind the defensive backs. Calhoun made the catch at the 25 and cruised the rest of the for a 46-yard touchdown. Duke had a 17-7 lead.
Hartman Strikes Back
Hartman got his first of the three touchdown passes on the night. On a nine-play drive, Hartman split Duke’s double coverage and found Taylor Morin for 31 yards down to the Blue Devils 13-yard line. Three plays Hartman completed the pass to Donavon Greene for eight yards and the touchdown to make it 17-14.
Wake added a 32-yard field goal by Matthew Dennis to tie the score at 17-17. Duke added a 32-yard field goal by Pelino at the end of the second quarter to take a 20-17 lead going into halftime.
Both teams came out sluggish in the second half. After exchanging a few punts, Duke put together a 76-yard touchdown drive. They only needed eight plays because of the big chunks of real estate they were getting. Leonard finished the drive with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Moore to give Duke a 10-point lead at 27-17.
On the next Wake Forest drive, Hartman got away with one of those passes that he nearly did not get back. Cam Dillon had a short, over-the-middle pass intended for Morin hit him right in the hands. His inability to get the pick gave Hartman another chance and he made it work. He connected with Morin in the deep left side of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown pass. The duke lead was down to 27-24.
Hartman finally gave Wake the lead in the fourth quarter. He capped off an 84-yard touchdown drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to A.T. Perry. With the pass, he also tied Boyd’s career touchdown pass record. Wake was up 31-27.
A Sack Changes Everything
In the feast or famine of the Wake offense for the night, they hit a critical famine. The Demon Deacons had the lead and the ball with less than four minutes left. On third and a short two from their own 40, Hartman was sacked for a seven-yard loss. After the punt, Duke had the ball on its own 35-yard line with no time-outs left.
Against this Wake defense, they didn’t need the timeouts. Tyler Williams got called for roughing the passer. Riley then completed a pass for 30 yards to Calhoun down to the Wake Forest 20-yard line. On the next play, it was Leonard to Hagans for the 20-yard touchdown pass and a lead they would never give up.
On fourth and 10 from his own 36-yard line, Hartman went 35 yards downfield and threw his first interception of the night.
Leonard, in tearing up the turf against the Wake defense, finished the game 29 of 41 for 391 yards, four touchdowns, and an interception.
Somber and Introspective
After the game, Hartman had no use for tying the ACC career touchdown record. Asked when he will take note of his accomplishment, he said, “When I’m 55 or 60 if I make it that far. I can show my kids when I’m old.” He added he will not reflect on it, “Any time soon.” Hartman added that “Deacon Nation deserved better,” than what they got in this 7-5 season.
A very introspective Clawson shouldered much of the responsibility for the loss. He said the defense giving up huge chunks of yards much of the season was on him. “We have struggled all year defending the deep ball,” he said. “When you lose close games, and I told the team this, you’ve got to put that on the head coach.” He said it was on him for not being able to get the team over the hump in close games. “The difference between us being 7-5 and 10-2 or 11-1 is all these close games.”
The team has a week before it finds out what bowl game it will have to finish the season. With Wake’s loss, and Clemson’s loss downwardly impacting the entire conference, it will likely be one of the lower-tier bowls. In the interim, Clawson said he is giving the team a little time off. He said he sensed they were mentally and emotionally tired because he knows he is. “This has been a really challenging year in a lot of ways. I’m tired. I’m probably as tired as I have ever been at the end of a season. I think our football team is tired. I think we just need a little bit of a break and refresh.”
The Waiting Game
Wake can enter into an agreement prior to next Sunday’s bowl announcements. But with a 7-5 overall record and a losing conference record, they are down the pecking order of ACC teams so will likely have to wait until others ahead of them have secured their bid.
In the post-game press conference, Hartman confirmed that he will not sit out the bowl game in order to save his body and get ready for the NFL draft. He said he does intend to play.