High score game expected for North Carolina-Wake Forest at Truist Field

Which defense will emerge on Saturday night?

That’s the biggest question coming up at the North Carolina vs Wake Forest football game.

If the last two games played between the two schools are any indication, it’s likely to be a track meet with touchdowns galore that should keep fans and an ESPN2 audience entertained.

In 2020 and 21, the Tar Heels won every shootout at both games at Chapel Hill, with basketball-like scores of 58-55 and 59-53.

Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson is hoping Saturday’s game will be a little more like 2019, when the Demon Deacons won 24-18 at Truist Field.

“Absolutely,” Clawson said when asked if this rivalry match was anything different. “This is the state’s flagship university and there is a long history and rivalry with this game. One of our biggest moments as a program was when we beat those guys 19 and won the Big Four.”

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While that win, which came before the pandemic hit and appeared to be around six years ago, was a big deal, Clawson also recalls the heavy losses.

“One of the deepest moments I’ve ever experienced was a year ago when we gave up the lead in Carolina,” he said. “So this game, and we put a lot into it, our players are invested and these games are important. You know, that post-NC State locker room wasn’t a happy place. And that’s a good thing, because that means guys care.”

Coach Mack Brown, who has the Tar Heels 8-1 and is ranked 15th, is 11-3 all-time in his career against the Demon Deacons, including a win when he was the head coach of the Appalachian State. Brown’s offense includes redshirt quarterback Drake Maye, who is responsible for 35 touchdowns and has helped the Tar Heels lead the ACC in almost every offensive category.

Brad Lambert, the defensive coordinator, faces a team that has 48 touchdowns and is averaging nearly 500 yards of offense per game.

The good news is that Clawson says his defense is the healthiest it has been this late in the season in a long time. Defensive end Rondell Bothroyd remains a game-changer with an injury. He missed the NC State game last week, but if he can play, he’ll certainly help matters.

“We’re still a good football team,” Clawson said of the two-game losing streak ahead of Saturday’s game. “I don’t think we’re really tired in defense this year. We have so much depth playing against so many players and the number of snaps is way down. I think the way we’re approaching offense probably helps our defense prepare for a game like this.”

Here are three things to look out for:

Sam Hartman is recovering

If Hartman, a redshirt junior quarterback, doesn’t come back next season, which he likely does, he only has two home games left. If there’s anyone who can match what North Carolina can do offensively, it’s Wake Forest. While Hartman has had nine turnovers in his last two games, he’s too good not to hit back. Whether it’s a high or low scoring game, Hartman has to reduce his turnovers for the Demon Deacons to win.

Watching the wide receiver

It’s a good bet that the NFL scouts in attendance will be keeping an eye on both teams’ wide receivers. Josh Downs (63 catches, 8 touchdowns) and Antoine Greene (26 catches, 6 touchdowns) of UNC were Maye’s primary targets. Wake Forest also has talent galore at wide receiver, led by AT Perry. The game difference could come from a wide receiver making a big play, and with Perry, Donavon Greene, Jahmal Banks and Ke’Shawn Williams, the Demon Deacons have more depth.

Special teams highlighted

One of the big changes for Wake Forest this season was special teams, with Matthew Dennis taking over as field goal kicker. The redshirt freshman was quietly very good after replacing Nick Sciba, the NCAA leader in accuracy. As close as those games have been over the past three years, it could be down to either Dennis or the Tar Heels’ Noah Burnette. So far this season, Dennis is 10 of 12 field goal attempts with his longest field goal of 46 yards. Burnette, a sophomore, is 8 of 10 on field goal attempts this season with his longest of 47 yards.