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Wake Gets to 11 Wins with Defensive Gem

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb recaps Wake Forest's Gator Bowl triumph and historic season.

Wake Forest caps off 11-win season with defensive masterpiece

After not earning a playoff berth for the first time since the creation of the College Football Playoff in 2014, it’s largely been a bowl season of disappointment for the ACC.

But that wouldn’t remain the case for Wake Forest, especially with the Demon Deacons facing the previously 5-7 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Rutgers threw everything it had against Wake Forest – literally, as five different Scarlet Knights players attempted passes Friday. But the Wake Forest defense posted a shutout in the second half to help the Demon Deacons pull away and rout Rutgers, 38-10, in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

It was one of the best defensive performances for Wake Forest all season. The Demon Deacons held the Scarlet Knights to 275 total yards and under 4.5 yards per play. The only Power 5 opponent Wake Forest did that against this season was Boston College.

The Demon Deacons also forced two of Rutgers’ five passers to throw interceptions. The first pick came in the end zone when the Scarlet Knights were threatening to tie the game with a touchdown just before halftime.

Instead of a Rutgers game-tying touchdown, Wake Forest had enough time to drive 87 yards for a field goal before time expired in the second quarter. Essentially, the interception was a 10-point swing and gave Wake Forest at least a two-possession lead for the remainder of the game.

Rutgers began the third quarter with the ball, but Wake Forest preserved its two-possession lead with another interception. With two takeaways and no turnovers, the Demon Deacons passed Pitt for the best turnover margin in the ACC this year at plus-9. Wake Forest also finished first in the ACC with 29 takeaways – only four programs in the country have more as of Dec. 31.

Wake Forest only scored three points off takeaways in the Gator Bowl, but the offense did plenty of other scoring. Outside of the kneel down to end the game, the Demon Deacons tallied 17 points on their final three drives to turn the Gator Bowl into a rout.

With 38 points, Wake Forest posted at least 35 points in 12 of 14 games this season. The Demon Deacons averaged 41 points per contest in 2021, which was second-best in the ACC only to Pitt and the fifth-highest average in the FBS.

Obviously, the Gator Bowl might have been closer and more interesting had Texas A&M been able to play. Rutgers stepped in to play instead because of COVID-19 concerns for the Aggies.

But Wake Forest took care of business against an inferior opponent – a program that only beat three Power 5 teams this season.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman erased the memory of his poor ACC Championship Game performance with three touchdowns. He completed 23 of 39 passes for 304 yards.

Hartman finished the 2021 season with 4,228 passing yards and 39 touchdowns. He also averaged 8.3 yards per pass with 14 interceptions.

Fellow sophomore wide receiver A.T. Perry ended his great season on a high note as well. Perry led Wake Forest with 10 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown.

In an ACC that had an explosion of passing and plenty of dynamic wide receivers, Perry emerged as one of the best playmakers in the conference during 2021. Perry posted 71 catches, 1,293 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns – finishing second in receiving touchdowns and third in receiving yards in the ACC.

Behind its rout of Rutgers, Wake Forest reached the 11-win plateau for the first time since 2006. Those are the only two seasons in program history that the Demon Deacons even reached 10 victories.

But with head coach Dave Clawson signing a contract extension and the centerpieces of the Wake Forest offense – Hartman and Perry – returning for at least one more season, the Demon Deacons could win another 10 games next year.

Clemson figures to be a bigger obstacle in the Atlantic next season, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sky appears to be the limit for Wake Forest heading into 2022.