WINSTON-SALEM — No. 15-ranked North Carolina needed some late heroics from its much maligned defense and a clutch kick from Noah Burnette to survive against in-state rival Wake Forest on Saturday.
The Tar Heels intercepted a Sam Hartman pass with 4:20 to play and turned that into a game-winning 33-yard field goal by Burnette with 2:12 remaining to grab a two-point lead. UNC’s defense, which had surrendered more than 500 yards of total offense in the game, stopped Wake Forest’s offense on four downs to pull out a 36-34 triumph at Truist Field.
The victory clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title for UNC (9-1, 6-0 ACC) and secured a berth in the league championship game. Picked to finish third in the Coastal in preseason balloting, the Tar Heels advance to their second ACC championship game, where they’ll meet Atlantic champ Clemson on Dec. 3 in Charlotte. North Carolina hasn’t won an ACC football championship since 1980.
UNC quarterback Drake Maye passed for 448 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a TD.
Here are observations and takeaways from UNC’s victory against Wake Forest:
The win gives North Carolina a perfect 6-0 record in road games this season. It marks the first time the Tar Heels have won six road games in a single season and is a complete turnaround from 2021 when they went 0-6 on the road.
Depleted Wake Forest secondary
Wake Forest was already missing starting safety Malik Mustapha for the showdown with UNC due to sickness. But over the course of the first half Saturday, the Deacons would lose three other secondary players to injury or disqualification.
Cornerback Caelen Carson and backup corner Gavin Holmes both went down with injuries in the opening half, then Mustapha’s replacement at safety, A.J. Williams, was disqualified for targeting in the second quarter.
The situation left Wake Forest with just two secondary starters available for most of the game.
UNC junior receiver Josh Downs continued his stellar play with an 11-catch, 154-yard, three-touchdown effort against the Deacons.
Downs has 21 touchdown receptions in the last 22 games. He has 22 career touchdown catches to rank second on UNC’s all-time list behind Quinshad Davis, who has 25.
Turning point for North Carolina
Wake Forest was leading 34-33 and in position on offense to extend the advantage at the UNC 41-yard line with about five minutes to play. But on second down, Hartman looked right and sent a pass toward receiver Donovan Greene. North Carolina safety Cam’Ron Kelly stepped in front of the pass for an interception and returned the ball 23 yards to the Wake Forest 48-yard line.
The Tar Heel offense took over from there, moving to the 16 to stage Burnette’s winning field goal.
The game pitted the ACC’s top two quarterbacks in Hartman and the UNC redshirt freshman Maye. And they lived up to the billing.
Maye, who is now being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate, completed 31 of 49 passes for 448 yards and three touchdowns. He also led UNC in rushing with 71 yards on 19 carries and added another score.
Hartman was 18-for-31 passing for 320 yards and four touchdowns.
The Tar Heels meet their final Coastal Division foe of the season next Saturday when Georgia tech comes to Chapel Hill.
Tech (4-6, 3-4) has lost three of its last four games but has been a thorn in UNC’s side in recent meetings. The Yellow Jackets have won three of the last four against UNC and amassed more than 400 yards rushing in two of those outings.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: UNC football tops Wake Forest, clinches ACC Championship berth