CHAPEL HILL — The North Carolina Tar Heels clinched the ACC Coastal Division title with a 36-34 win at Wake Forest on Saturday night.
The win moved UNC to 6-0 in the ACC and 9-1 overall. They will face Clemson in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 3. The win also moved UNC to 6-0 in road games this season, setting a team record. The Tar Heels were 0-5 on the road last year.
The game wasn’t as high scoring as the shootouts turned in by the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons in the last two seasons, with both previous games topping 110 combined points, but the game still featured plenty of offense and went down to the wire.
It started off looking like a Tar Heels rout. UNC held Wake to four plays on its first drive and a three-and-out on the second. UNC got punts after both failed Demon Deacons possessions and turned in a Drake Maye touchdown pass to Josh Downs and an Elijah Green run, taking a 14-0 lead halfway through the opening quarter.
Maye, who has emerged as a dark horse Heisman candidate as the season has gone on, made a strong case for consideration with his performance in Winston-Salem. He finished the night 31 of 49 for a career-high 448 yards and three touchdowns, all to Downs, who finished with 11 catches for 154 yards. Downs took over the ACC lead in touchdown catches, which he accomplished despite missing two games due to injury.
Maye also led the team in rushing with 71 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s everything people say he is,” Wake coach Dave Clawson said of Maye. “Incredible athlete, incredible arm talent, great decision-making.”
Wake quarterback Sam Hartman, who has struggled the last two weeks in throwing a total of six interceptions in back-to-back losses to Louisville and NC State, was up to the challenge of a showdown with Maye. He finished with 320 passing yards and four touchdowns, cutting UNC’s lead to six — 27-21 — at halftime and giving Wake Forest an improbable lead with a 32-yard pass to AT Perry midway through the third quarter. He was 3 for 3 on the go-ahead drive for 43 yards passing, adding another eight on the ground.
Maye responded with a touchdown drive of his own, completing three passes for 54 yards, and Hartman found Donavon Greene for 60 yards to put the Deacs back on top, 34-33.
Wake Forest got the ball back with 5:47 left in the game and the chance to run out the clock with a long drive. The Deacs got a pair of first downs and crossed midfield, but then Hartman made the one offensive mistake of the game on either side. He threw the ball downfield, looking for Greene, but safety Cam’Ron Kelly was able to step in front of it to give UNC the ball back with a chance to win. On the first play, Maye found Downs up the sideline, and Downs was able to juke the defender to add yardage, finishing with a 44-yard gain that took UNC to the Wake 5.
Maye and the UNC offense couldn’t finish the drive, however, and kicker Noah Burnette knocked through a go-ahead field goal that finished the game’s scoring.
“I’m disappointed with the result, not at all the effort,” Clawson said. “This one stings.”
Over in the visiting locker room, the Tar Heels accepted their second-ever Coastal Division trophy — UNC won its first in 2015.
“We didn’t talk about the Coastal because we didn’t want somebody to lose — and back into it,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said. “We wanted to win and we did.”