The ACC championship game pitted Wake Forest’s No. 3 scoring offense against Pitt’s No. 4 scoring offense, but it was Pitt’s defense that ensured the Panthers would not leave Charlotte empty-handed as Pitt topped Wake Forest 45-21 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday night.
In the days before the game, super senior linebacker Phil Campbell III – who was on the 2018 team that lost the ACC title game to Clemson – said: “We’re going in there to win and losing is not an option.”
The Pitt defense picked off Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman on three consecutive second-half drives, leading to three Pitt touchdowns that put the game out of reach for the Demon Deacons.
Pitt led 24-21 when safety Erick Hallett II intercepted Hartman with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, setting up the Pitt offense in Wake Forest territory. The Panthers needed just four plays to get in the end zone, when running back Israel Abanikanda scored from 12 yards out.
Hartman was picked on the next drive by cornerback A.J. Woods, who returned it 73 yards to the Wake Forest 3-yard line. Abanikanda scored a 1-yard touchdown on third-and-goal to give the Panthers a 38-21 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Hallett picked off Hartman again on the quarterback’s next pass and returned it 19 yards for Pitt’s second touchdown in a 15-second span, and the rout was on. Pitt led 45-21 with 11:42 remaining and Hartman was pulled from the game.
Hallett was named the ACC championship game MVP for his game-changing interceptions.
“Our guys made plays on the ball,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said after the game. “I think we shook them up a little bit in the backfield. (Hartman) got a little antsy because he did get hit a few times. I think everybody’s got to play until they get hit.
“Hartman’s a heck of a football player. He’s a great quarterback and our defense did a good job to shut them down.”
Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett, the ACC Player of the Year, knew the defense would be an important factor.
“Before the game, I told our team, ‘Defense wins championships.’ I thought our defense was getting disrespected all week,” Pickett said. “I’m really happy those guys turned it around in the second half and really shut them down.”
“We played championship defense at the end, that’s for sure,” Narduzzi told reporters.
The contest didn’t start off that way.
Pitt and Wake Forest traded touchdowns in the first quarter.
Pickett scored the first touchdown of the game when he ran for 58 yards to the end zone after faking a slide, catching the Wake Forest defense off guard.
“It was intentional,” Pickett said of the play. “I just kind of started slowing down and pulling up and getting ready to slide. I just kind of saw their body language – they pulled up as well. I’ve never done that before. I just kind of kept going after I had started to slide.”
“He’s an athlete, you can’t teach that. It’s called instincts,” Narduzzi said. “It was a heck of a play.”
The Demon Deacons responded by capping a 10-play, 75-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Hartman to A.T. Perry to tie the game.
The Panthers struck right back with a four-play, 75-yard drive that resulted in a 22-yard touchdown reception by running back Rodney Hammond Jr.
Hartman scored a rushing touchdown of his own on the next Wake Forest drive.
The score was tied at 14 with 6:31 remaining in the first quarter, and it looked like the game might be the shootout many had predicted.
Pitt blinked first when kicker Sam Scarton missed a 49-yard field goal. The Demon Deacons got the ball at their own 31 and took the lead a minute later as Hartman connected with Taylor Morin for a 26-yard touchdown.
Wake Forest led 21-14 with 3:07 remaining in the first quarter.
The Pitt defense clamped down and didn’t allow another point the rest of the way.
“Just little tweaks and adjustments,” Narduzzi said. “We didn’t play any different defense than we did in the first three drives that were touchdowns.
“That’s just kind of how we rolled all year. We make our adjustments, get comfortable in the game and see what they’re doing.”
Hartman was picked off for the first time by Marquis Williams early in the second quarter, but the Pitt offense failed to score on the ensuing drive.
The Pitt defense sacked Hartman on three consecutive second-quarter drives, once by defensive end Dayon Hayes and twice by Pitt middle linebacker SirVocea Dennis.
Pitt tied it up midway through the second quarter, when Pickett hit Jared Wayne in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown and retook the lead when Scarton made a 41-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
The Panthers never trailed again.
“When we arrived back in 2015, I took this job because I knew we could win a championship,” Narduzzi said on the podium during the trophy presentation. “Seven years later, we’re here.”
Notes: Pitt will play Michigan State (10-2) in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. The contest will kick off at 7 p.m. on Dec. 30 on ESPN. Michigan State holds a 6-0-1 series edge.
The teams last met in 2007.
Kenny Pickett confirmed he plans to play in the bowl game. Bowl selections will be announced Sunday afternoon. ... Pickett passed Dan Marino for most touchdown passes in a Pitt career. Pickett came in the game tied with Marino at 79 touchdown passes and has 81 after two touchdown passes on Saturday night. ... Pickett also broke the ACC record for most touchdown passes thrown in a single season. DeShaun Watson threw 41 touchdowns for Clemson in a 15-game season in 2016. Pickett has now thrown 42 touchdowns in 13 games this season. ... Pickett finished the game completing 20-of-32 passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions. ... Pitt became the first Coastal Division team to win the ACC since Virginia Tech won the conference in 2010.
Amanda Filipcic-Godsey is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. She covers Pitt football and basketball for CNHI Pa. newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaFGodsey