ACC Championship game between Pitt, Wake Forest to feature no shortage of scoring

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Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Jordan Addison (3) and Kenny Pickett (8) celebrate the first touchdown at the Oct. 3, 2020, game against NC State.

By Frankie Richetti, Staff Writer

If you had said before the season started that Pitt and Wake Forest — picked to finish fourth and fifth in their respective divisions — would match up in the conference title game, fans probably wouldn’t believe you. 

But both programs finished at the top of the ACC this season, finishing the year with identical 7-1 records in conference and 10-2 overall marks. These two teams, both making just their second appearance in the annual title contest, will square off in the 2021 ACC Championship game. 

The Panthers last played in the ACC Championship game in 2018, but Clemson, the eventual National Champions, defeated Pitt 42-10. On the other side, Wake Forest returns for the first time since 2006 — when the Demon Deacons beat Georgia Tech by a score of 9-6. 

The Panthers capped off their first 10-win season since 1981 in comfortable fashion, beating Syracuse 31-14 at the Carrier Dome. Unlike Pitt, Wake didn’t go into its regular season finale with a spot in the title game booked. Wake Forest needed a win over Boston College to clinch the Atlantic. It did just that, romping the Golden Eagles 41-10.

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Both teams feature prolific offenses, with Pitt and Wake both ranking in the top five in the country in scoring. The battle between the two quarterbacks — Wake Forest sophomore Sam Hartman and Pitt super senior Kenny Pickett — guarantees fireworks. Hartman and Pickett sit among the top 10 in the nation in yards, passing touchdowns, points responsible for and a plethora of other stats. With two of the best quarterbacks in the sport under center, this one has all the makings of a barnburner.

Pitt defense vs. the RPO

Pitt’s struggles against the run-pass option this season are well documented. A week three loss to Western Michigan, in which the Broncos shredded the Panther defense with RPOs, is still in the back of the minds of Panther fans. The Panther defense could be in for another long night Saturday given Wake Forest’s style of RPO is one of the best in the country. 

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson employs an offense where almost every play they run is a run-pass option.

“We did some RPO stuff at Bowling Green,” Clawson said. “There were some complementary RPO plays but it wasn’t the bread and butter of what we did, and we got here and I just think, at Wake Forest, you have to be a little bit unconventional.”

Wake’s slow mesh RPO is unlike any other — the quarterback read is about two seconds longer. In this type of scheme, the offensive line will run block on most occasions, but it also grants Hartman the freedom to take his option of keeping the ball himself or throwing the ball. Much of the talk about Hartman is about his arm, but he can hurt opponents on the ground as well — the sophomore has rushed for a career high 10 touchdowns this season.

When Hartman airs it out though, he is in no shortage of weapons. The Demon Deacons boast a pair of 1,000 yard receivers this season — sophomore A.T. Perry and junior Jaquarii Roberson — who present the best duo of wide outs the Panthers will face all year.

Clawson stated that half their passing plays begin as run plays within this offense. This has helped the Wake Forest offensive line cut down on sacks allowed and will present a distinct challenge for the Panthers’ defensive line.

The Panthers are top five in the nation in both sacks and rush yards per game, making it an interesting chess match. If Pitt can keep the Wake Forest run game in check and force them to be one-dimensional, they will likely walk out of Bank of America Stadium as ACC Champions. That task is a lot easier said than done though. The Panthers’ defense certainly has their hands full this Saturday night.

Will Pitt try to establish the run?

Wake Forest sits at No. 118 nationally in rushing defense, giving up an average of 209.5 yards per game. The Panther offense will obviously run through Pickett as it should, but it has been more balanced in recent weeks. The running game has carved a niche out amid a prolific passing attack.

The health of Pitt’s top running back, sophomore Israel Abanikanda, is in question. Abanikanda won ACC Specialist of the Week after his 98-yard kickoff return touchdown against Virginia, but an injury forced him to exit the game early.

The Brooklyn native didn’t travel in Pitt’s win over Syracuse last weekend. But with or without the talented halfback, the Panthers need to establish the run.

Even if Pitt gets behind early, it has to continue to attack one of Wake Forest’s glaring weaknesses. In Abanikanda’s absence against Syracuse, two Panther running backs — first year Rodney Hammond and junior Vincent Davis  — filled the void nicely, combining for 28 rushes for 130 yards.

If Abanikanda is good to go, that gives the Panthers even more reason to establish the run. But no matter the personnel, that should be a priority this weekend.

The turnover battle

Like any championship game, the margin for error is extremely low. Given that both teams have high-powered offenses, this feels like the type of game that will be decided by the turnover margin.

That’s a battle that Clawson’s unit usually wins — Wake is tied for No. 5 in the country in turnover margin. Pickett has been nearly flawless all season long, but he has to do a better job of taking care of the ball if the Panthers want to win this one. After going seven games with just one interception, Pickett has thrown six interceptions across the Panthers’ last five games and one in each of his last three games.

As for Hartman, he has thrown 10 picks on the season, including seven over his last four games. Ball security will absolutely be an emphasis, as each miscue will give either explosive offense another chance to put up points.

Prediction: Pitt wins first-ever ACC Championship in thrilling fashion 

The 2021 ACC Championship is sure to be a shootout. The Demon Deacons’ slow mesh RPO scheme is going to give the Panthers trouble, and they will put up a lot of points as expected. Despite that, Pitt’s success against the run this year will continue, making the Wake offense more one-dimensional than they would like.

The Panthers will have a big day on the ground against one of the worst rush defenses in the country. Look for Pitt’s stable of backs to have a big day and exploit the weakness of the Wake Forest defense.

Pickett and Hartman will trade haymakers, but Pickett will come away with his hand raised in this fight, outdueling Hartman. Hartman has been turnover prone as of late, and Pickett will take better care of the ball and lead the Panthers to their first-ever ACC Championship in a 45-42 victory.