WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – No. 15 North Carolina didn’t squander its first chance to clinch a trip to the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Noah Burnette kicked a 33-yard field goal with 2:12 left and UNC’s defense came up with key fourth-quarter stops to beat Wake Forest 36-34 on Saturday night, a win that claimed the league’s Coastal Division title.
The Tar Heels (9-1, 6-0) earned it with a road win in a marquee matchup of star quarterbacks Drake Maye of UNC and Sam Hartman of Wake Forest. And while the offenses had the edge all night, the Tar Heels’ defense pitched in at critical moments to keep them unbeaten in league play.
As a result, the Tar Heels’ locker-room celebration included ACC associate commissioner for football Michael Strickland coming in to present the team with the trophy for winning the Coastal. It even made its way to star receiver Josh Downs at one point as he talked with reporters afterward near the locker-room tunnel.
“They’ve really accomplished some amazing things and still have some things left,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “I’ve talked to them for a couple of weeks about not talking about the Coastal (scenarios). I didn’t want to back in.
“I didn’t want somebody to have to lose. I didn’t want them looking at somebody losing. I wanted us to win, and the guys did that.”
The game-turning play came with the Tar Heels facing a one-point deficit and Wake Forest’s offense pushing across midfield. But Cam'Ron Kelly jumped in front of Hartman’s throw over the middle for an interception to set up the drive for Burnette’s go-ahead kick.
Then, the Tar Heels pressured Hartman into a fourth-down incompletion with 64 seconds left – a moment that had Tar Heels players skipping around the sideline in anticipation. The Tar Heels killed the rest of the clock to seal the program’s second trip to the ACC title game and first since 2015 – this one coming with Brown in his second tenure with the school.
Maye threw for 448 yards and three touchdowns, each going to Downs who continued his tear of late. Downs finished with 11 grabs for 154 yards, with all three of his scores coming before halftime.
Hartman threw for 320 yards and four touchdowns for Wake Forest (6-4, 2-4). Donavon Greene had two of those scores, including a 60-yarder late in the third quarter for a 34-33 lead.
“I’ll tell you guys what I told the team: I’m disappointed with the result, not at all with the effort,” coach Dave Clawson said. “Our guys played their hearts out. This one hurts, it stings.”
UNC: The offense has led the way all season while the defense has largely struggled for consistency. But that unit came up big in key moments here, which also included a fourth-down stop inside its own 10-yard line earlier in the fourth. As a result, the Tar Heels improved to 6-0 on the road for the first time in program history and earned a date with No. 12 Clemson for the ACC title in Charlotte on Dec. 3.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons had pushed to the top 10 of the AP Top 25 before road losses at Syracuse and No. 17 North Carolina State. Those losses had featured protection problems for Hartman by surrendering 12 sacks. The Demon Deacons had committed 11 turnovers in the two games. They avoided most of those issues this time, though Hartman’s pick with 4:20 left proved critical as the game’s lone turnover.
UNC seems likely to climb in Sunday’s new AP Top 25 poll after reaching 9-1 for the first time since last Coastal Division win in 2015.
Kelly’s pick came when he crossed from the left side of the field to the right to jump in front of Hartman’s throw for Greene.
“I was on the opposite of the field, I was just keying off the quarterback’s eyes,” Kelly said.
Clawson said the throw was “a fraction of a second late.”
UNC: The Tar Heels return home to host Georgia Tech next Saturday.
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons host Syracuse in their home finale next Saturday.