Hartman leads No. 20 Wake Forest to 38-10 romp in Gator Bowl

Corey Perrine / USA TODAY NETWORK
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sam Hartman‘s big day capped Wake Forest’s best season in 15 years.

Hartman tossed three touchdown passes, two of them to tight end Brandon Chapman, and the 20th-ranked Demon Deacons beat Rutgers 38-10 in the Gator Bowl on Friday to reach 11 wins for the second time in program history.

Hartman completed 23 of 39 passes for 304 yards. He added 21 more yards rushing and pushed his touchdown total to 50 this season – 39 passing and 11 rushing. He was named the winning team’s most valuable player.

“It’s everything,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the moment.”

The Demon Deacons (11-3) controlled the game from the start, scoring on their first three drives and opening a double-digit lead just before halftime. It played out about as expected given Rutgers (5-8) was a late replacement for 23rd-ranked Texas A&M.

The Aggies pulled out because of a lack of available players due to injuries, opt-outs, transfers and COVID-19 issues. The NCAA gave Rutgers the first shot at filling the void because it had the highest Academic Progress Rate score of all the eligible 5-7 teams.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano hastily gathered his players from Christmas break and held two practices in a heated bubble before heading south. They got in two more in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach this week before taking the field.

They were ready, willing and probably overmatched against the one of the nation’s best offenses. When it was over, Schiano raised his fist and saluted the Rutgers faithful who made the long trip to much warmer weather.

“What we did has never been done before,” Schiano said. “This is the hardest week of work that I’ve ever done as a coach, and I’ve done it for 34 years. I’ll remember everything it took and all the people who made it possible. … But that was a little bit unhealthy.”

The Demon Deacons finished with 452 yards, converted 8 of 15 third downs and their lone fourth-down try. The offensive show carried them to 11 wins for the first time since 2006, which was their only Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

“This was a historical season,” coach Dave Clawson said. “We’re hopefully part of a debate of what the greatest team is. The 2006 team was an incredible team, but the 2021 was a really good team as well.”

THE TAKEAWAY

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons should be among the preseason favorites in the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. They could lose as few as six of 22 starters.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights turned the ball over twice, which was twice too many for an offensively challenged team with a small margin for error. Rutgers was 5-0 this season when playing turning-free football.

TURNING POINT

The key play came in the second quarter, when Wake Forest cornerback Gavin Holmes stepped in front of Noah Vedral‘s pass to Joshua Youngblood at the goal line and intercepted it. Wake led 17-10 at the time and ended up driving for a field goal and a 10-point lead at the break.

Vedral was one of five players who threw passes for Rutgers. He completed 8 of 13 passes for 87 yards and the interception.

DO IT ALL

Rutgers quarterback Johnny Langan was all over the field. He lined up at quarterback, running back, tight end and receiver. He completed both passes for 21 yards. He ran six times for 20 yards. And he caught six balls for 57 yards.

“I’ve been playing football my whole life and it just comes naturally,” Langan said.

EJECTED AGAIN

Wake Forest linebacker Ryan Smenda, a junior who grew up in nearby Orange Park, was ejected for the third time this season for targeting. Smenda barely made contact, if at all, this time. He was penalized for intent because he led with his helmet while chasing Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt. Wimsatt slid late, and Smenda flew over the top of him.

Smenda also was ejected in regular-season games against Army (Oct. 23) and North Carolina State (Nov. 13). He will have to sit out the first half of Wake’s 2022 season opener against Virginia Military Institute on Sept. 1.

KEY INJURIES

Wake Forest punter Ivan Mora was carted off the field in the fourth quarter with an air cast on his right ankle/foot. Mora got caught at the bottom of a pileup after kicking off.

UP NEXT

Wake Forest expects to get Hartman back for a fifth year. He’s started 33 games over four seasons and accounted for 87 touchdowns, including 71 passing.

Rutgers says goodbye to nine sixth-year seniors, including seven defenders. The most notable departures are cornerback Tre Avery and defensive tackle Julius Turner.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.

Pratt accounts for 5 TDs, Tulane tops UCF 45-28 to win AAC

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS – As Tulane receiver Shae Wyatt watched jubilant fans streaming onto the field, he couldn’t help but reflect upon how far his team had come since finishing last season 2-10.

“It’s definitely surreal,” said Wyatt, whose two touchdown catches were no small part of why a celebratory scene so hard to conceive of a year ago was unfolding around him. “Seeing all the other schools with their success, and having their fans storm the field – eventually, everybody wants that.”

Michael Pratt accounted for 442 total yards and five touchdowns, Tyjae Spears highlighted his 199 yards rushing with a 60-yard score and No. 18 Tulane beat No. 22 UCF 45-28 on Saturday night in the American Athletic Conference championship game.

The victory virtually assured Tulane (11-2) would play in the Cotton Bowl – its first major New Year’s Day bowl since the 1939 season.

A full hour after the game, Tulane players were still in uniform, walking back to the field from the locker room to pose for photos with teammates, some with cigars in hand. Spears joked that his elbow was sore from fans pulling on him for a congratulatory embrace.

“It was an amazing feeling, man,” Spears said. “That’s something that will stick with us for the rest of our life.”

And Wyatt suggested that Tulane’s remarkable turnaround should serve as a lesson.

“They were just throwing dirt over us and for a while it was hard to bounce back,” Wyatt said of last season, during which Tulane was displaced by Hurricane Ida to a Birmingham hotel for a month, and plagued with injuries to prominent players.

“If you keep your faith and you believe in your brothers that are next to you, flowers will grow. I promise you,” Wyatt said. “I hope this is a testament to anybody out there.”

Pratt passed for a career-high 394 yards, including touchdowns of 73 yards to Duece Watts, 60 and 10 yards to Wyatt and 43 yards to Lawrence Keys. Pratt also ran for a pivotal 18-yard touchdown with 4:04 left.

“It was awesome to close out that game and have those fans so fired up,” said Pratt, named the game’s most outstanding player.

Spears electrified the record crowd of 30,118 at Tulane’s cozy, on-campus Yulman Stadium with his long scoring run, on which he broke two tackles near the line of scrimmage, made two other defenders miss and hurndled his own fallen teammate after cutting back inside.

The Green Wave, which earned the right to host the title game by ending Cincinnati’s 32-game home winning streak last weekend, avenged a 38-31 regular-season loss to UCF (9-4) on the same field on Nov. 12.

But UCF was not quite the same team because of QB John Rhys Plumlee‘s nagging hamstring injury, which appeared to rob him of the explosiveness he displayed by running for 176 yards in the previous meeting.

Plumlee struggled enough early on that coach Gus Malzahn pulled him in the second quarter in favor of Thomas Castellanos. But with Tulane up 24-7 in the middle of the third quarter, Malzahn put Plumlee back in as primarily a passer – and he nearly led the Kights all the way back.

“He’s one of the toughest players I think I’ve ever coached,” Malzahn said. “John Rhys just kept telling me, `Coach, give me another chance.’ … He really gave us a spark.”

Plumlee led UCF quickly for a touchdown to make it 24-14, converting a fourth-and-10 pass along the way and capping the drive with a 17-yarder to Kobe Hudson.

“You work all year to play in a game like this,” said Plumlee, who completed 29 of 39 for 209 yards and one TD, but finished with minus-7 yards rushing as Tulane had six sacks. “I didn’t want to sell myself short or sell this team short.”

Tulane responded when both UCF safeties froze on a play-fake to Spears and Pratt found Watts running free behind the defense.

UCF cut it to 31-21 when former Virginia QB RJ Harvey took a backward pass from Plumlee and launched a 49-yard TD pass to Hudson.

And the Knights got the ball right back when Spears fumbled after a catch on the Green Wave 30. Isaiah Bowser‘s 10-yard run shortly after got UCF as close as 31-28 with 9:48 still left.

But Pratt again found a way to lead the Wave down the field, connecting with Wyatt for the longer of the receiver’s two TDs, and UCF didn’t threaten again.

THE TAKEAWAY

UCF: Knights sophomore backup QB Mikey Keene, who had come in after Plumlee injuries for comeback victories over Cincinnati and South Florida, did not dress for the game. That allowed him to retain a year of eligibility, but also raised questions over whether he might test the transfer portal.

Tulane: It was a dream end to week that got off to a less-than-ideal start with reports out of Atlaata that head coach Willie Fritz being pursued by Georgia Tech.

“Well, I sure am glad I stayed,” Fritz said. “I made a commitment to these kids and the last thing I ever wanted to be was a distraction. So, I’m just proud to be here.”

UP NEXT

UCF: Awaits a bowl bid on Sunday.

Tulane: Heads to its most significant bowl appearance since losing 14-13 to Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1940.