WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — North Carolina conjured up comeback magic yet again Saturday night, and this time the clincher for the ACC’s Coastal Division came along with it.
The 15th-ranked Tar Heels topped Wake Forest 36-34 at Truist Field, as Noah Burnette’s 33-yard field goal with 2:12 remaining became the game-winner.
UNC’s defense shut out the Demon Deacons during the fourth quarter, delivering a finishing statement that put the Tar Heels in position to overcome a second-half deficit for the fourth straight game.
North Carolina (9-1 overall, 6-0 ACC) will make its second trip to the ACC championship game, and first appearance since 2015, no matter how its final two games of the regular season unfold against Georgia Tech and NC State. The ACC championship game will match UNC against Clemson on Dec. 3 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Cam Kelly’s interception of Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman in the game’s final five minutes set the table for Burnette’s winning field goal. UNC’s defense sandwiched fourth-down stops around Kelly’s clutch pickoff, and the celebration was on here in a stadium where the Tar Heels hadn’t won since 2004.
UNC quarterback Drake Maye threw for a season-high 448 yards and three touchdowns, with all of those scores going to Josh Downs, who hauled in 11 catches for 154 yards. The Tar Heels held leads of 14-0, 21-7 and 27-21 in the first half.
In the second half, Maye’s 5-yard touchdown run on a third-down rollout put North Carolina ahead 33-28. Wake Forest answered in a matter of three plays. Hartman’s 60-yard touchdown bomb to Donavon Greene vaulted Demon Deacons to a 34-33 lead. UNC cornerback Storm Duck broke up Hartmans’ ensuing two-point pass attempt.
Hartman threw for 320 yards and four touchdowns. The Demon Deacons (6-4, 2-4) suffered their third straight loss. Wake Forest had been 19-3 in home games since the start of the 2019 season.
The Tar Heels moved to 6-0 on the road in a season for the first time in program history.
Josh Downs counts them out, 1-2-3
Downs had scored three times and produced his fourth straight 100-yard receiving effort by halftime, and done so with some flair.
With running mate Antoine Green getting checked out in the medical tent after taking a big hit over the middle — a hit that sidelined Green for the rest of the game — Maye hooked up with Downs on a 20-yard touchdown pass that put North Carolina ahead 27-21 late in the first half.
Downs then proceeded to extend a hand and count out his touchdowns at that juncture, one finger by the next, in celebration of the score — one, two, three.
RaRa Dillworth’s big play in his backyard
Wake Forest was backed up near the end of the first half, when Hartman escaped defensive lineman Jahvaree Ritzie on a third-and-10, another moment where the UNC defense was able to get pressure on the Demon Deacons quarterback.
Hartman couldn’t elude RaRa Dillworth, though, the speedy backup linebacker. Hartman tried to put a move on the quickly closing Dillworth, but that didn’t work and Dillworth dropped him for a 14-yard loss.
That marked the first solo sack of the sophomore Dillworth’s college careers, and it happened in his hometown. The Winston-Salem native was a highly recruited high school prospect out of Kenersville Glenn.
What a run for Elijah Green
UNC jumped ahead 14-0 during the game’s opening eight minutes on Elijah Green’s 5-yard touchdown run. That capped a rapid four-play drive that took only 51 seconds, with Green’s 24-yard burst getting the Tar Heels started in a hurry.
That moved Green to six touchdowns — five rushing and one receiving — since his breakthrough at Duke three games ago, when he scored the first touchdowns of his college career.
Next on the schedule
North Carolina returns home to play Georgia Tech, the first of back-to-back games at Kenan Stadium to close the regular season.
The Tar Heels can make it a season sweep of ACC Coastal Division foes by defeating the Yellow Jackets (4-6, 3-4). UNC has beaten division opponents Virginia Tech, Miami, Duke, Pittsburgh and Virginia along the course of this special season.