College football previews: Deacs look to keep win streak alive at UNC
Published 12:00 am Friday, November 5, 2021
By Aaron Beard
AP Sports Writer
Wake Forest has its highest AP Top 25 ranking, the best start in program history and is in the race to reach the College Football Playoff.
Getting there requires the 10th-ranked Demon Deacons to keep winning through a demanding November — starting with Saturday’s unusual matchup against fellow instate Atlantic Coast Conference team North Carolina that won’t count in the league standings.
It marks the second nonconference game between the Demon Deacons (8-0, No. 9 CFP ) and Tar Heels (4-4) in three seasons. It originated from a 2015 agreement to play a home-and-home series outside of ACC play because they don’t meet as often amid the expanded league’s scheduling rotation.
This game won’t affect Wake Forest’s push for its first ACC title since 2006, but can impact just about everything else in a special season.
“Definitely the temptation’s there,” tight end Brandon Chapman said of getting caught up in the historic start. “We keep reminding each other, put on the blinders. … It’s all about what we believe in and what we think we can do.”
The Tar Heels started the year at No. 10, but enter November trying to become bowl eligible. They’re coming off a loss to No. 8 Notre Dame.
“When you’re playing the No. 10 team in the country, very seldom does the No. 10 team come to your place,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “So what a great opportunity for us.”
Expect to see the football flying often. Wake Forest’s quarterback Sam Hartman is 10th in the Bowl Subdivision in passing (309.4 yards) and ninth in passing touchdowns (22). He has accounted for 11 touchdowns in the past two weeks against Army and Duke.
“He’s in a little groove right now,” UNC defensive back Cam Kelly said.
UNC’s Sam Howell has seen preseason Heisman Trophy hype fade, but he still ranks 13th in FBS with TD passes (19) and 16th in passing (274.0). He’s also rushed for 98 or more yards in five games with six rushing scores.
“Anybody who’s critical of Sam Howell, and how he’s played, hasn’t watched any film on him,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said.
Wake Forest’s A.T. Perry and North Carolina’s Josh Downs are tied for seventh nationally with eight touchdown catches, while Downs is ranked in the top five in both receiving yards (122.4) and receptions (8.8) per game.
UNC said Downs is the first player nationally with at least eight catches and a touchdown in eight straight games since Fresno State’s Davante Adams – now a Pro Bowler with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers – had nine straight in 2013.
Wake Forest has thrived in a pair of key areas. One is turnover margin, with the Demon Deacons ranking fourth in FBS in turnover margin (plus-10). Another is third-down percentage, where Wake Forest ranks fifth (51.2%).
The Tar Heels are right there in moving the chains (tied for seventh at 49.5%), but have merely broken even on turnovers this season.
The series began in 1888, and the teams had met every year from 1944 to 2004 before the league’s expansion beyond nine teams made those get-togethers less frequent. The nonconference series came because the teams weren’t scheduled to meet in league play for six seasons (2016-21).
Wake Forest won the first nonconference game at home in 2019 in a game that ended with an officiating mistake, then the teams got an extra ACC matchup last year when the league shuffled its scheduling model due to the COVID-19 pandemic. UNC won that one 59-53, rallying from 21 down in the third quarter behind Howell setting program records with 550 yards passing and six TDs along with a rushing score.
UNC has seen multiple players enter the transfer portal in recent weeks to change its depth chart, most recently with receiver Emery Simmons and defensive lineman Kristian Varner this week. Simmons started six games with 11 catches for 243 yards so far but didn’t play against Notre Dame, while Varner had appeared in 10 games through two-plus seasons. The school said reserves Khafre Brown at receiver, Clyde Pinder Jr. at defensive lineman and Josh Henderson running back had also entered the portal in the past two weeks.
Duke at home against Pitt
DURHAM (AP) — Pittsburgh’s rapid rise hit an abrupt stop. The Panthers now must surge through November to secure a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
The Panthers visit Duke on Saturday for a Coastal Division matchup. It comes a week after Pitt (6-2, 3-1 ACC) lost at home against Miami, ending a four-game winning streak that had carried the Panthers into the AP Top 25 while increasing Heisman Trophy buzz for quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Pitt still leads the division race, though Virginia (4-2 ACC) sits a game back in the loss column and still has a matchup with the Panthers ahead that could determine the division winner.
“There’s no room for error,” Pickett said. “The sense of urgency is up. … We’re going after it. There’s not a lot of missed assignments and you can tell guys are in the playbook.”
The challenge is different for the Blue Devils (3-5, 0-4), who are trying to turn around a season that is getting away from them fast.
Duke followed a 48-0 loss at Virginia by barely avoiding another shutout in a 45-7 loss at No. 10 Wake Forest last weekend. The top unit hasn’t scored a touchdown since early in the fourth quarter of a 31-27 home loss to Georgia Tech on Oct. 9.
“Whatever it is each week, we just need to keep working,” running back Mataeo Durant said. “We don’t need to give up in the middle of a season when we have a few more games left. We still have a lot to play for.”
Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi insists he’s still got confidence in his defense even after it gave up 492 yards against the Hurricanes, the second time the unit has been lit up in a home loss. Western Michigan racked up 517 yards in a stunning September upset.
Narduzzi noted Pitt’s mistakes against Miami were mostly in the first quarter as the Hurricanes raced to a 21-7 lead. The Panthers gave up just a single touchdown after the break, though it came immediately after Pitt tied the game at 31.
“If it would have been a first half and the second half the same, maybe we’re back to square one,” he said. “But we’ve got a good football team and I’ve got a lot of trust and faith in our guys.”
Duke gave up 100 unanswered points from late in the Georgia Tech loss until reserve quarterback Riley Leonard scored on a 2-yard keeper with 7:17 left against Wake Forest, a run of 25 straight completed drives (uninterrupted by halftime or the game’s end) without scoring.
“When you get in the red zone, my line of thinking has always been you’re getting more and more like a backyard,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “You think people at that point, you’ve got to have the right go-to people. … And you’ve got to design better around that. That’s, again, my job.”
Pittsburgh is 3-0 on the road against power-conference opponents, starting with a win at Tennessee on Sept. 11. The Panthers won at Georgia Tech by 31 and at Virginia Tech by 21 in league games last month.
Pittsburgh has won six of seven with Duke since joining the ACC for the 2013 season, including the last five. Duke’s lone win came in a 51-48 shootout in 2014 on the road.
The division opponents didn’t play last year for the first time since Pitt’s arrival after the league shuffled its scheduling model due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pitt could be without senior receiver Taysir Mack, who exited last week’s game and had his left arm in a sling in the second half. Mack is third on the team with 27 receptions for 461 yards and three TDs.
A season ago, Mack’s absence might have been a problem. Pickett, however, has had little trouble spreading it around with 16 different Panthers catching at least one pass.
Freshman tight end Gavin Bartholomew has joined graduate transfer Lucas Krull to give Pitt depth at a position where production has lagged for years. They have combined for 38 catches for 464 yards and six scores.