Neither Pitt nor Wake Forest entered the 2021 season with postseason expectations from most within the college football community, but the Panthers and Demon Deacons have emerged as the top teams in the ACC this season nonetheless.
And both squads have followed a somewhat similar blueprint for success this season. Pitt and Wake Forest feature explosive offenses (both scoring more than 42 points per game, which is Top 5 nationally) led by two of the top quarterbacks in the country and talented supporting casts.
Kenny Pickett, Jordan Addison and Pitt’s talented cast of skill players are well known, but what about the Wake Forest offensive threats? And a couple of stud defenders on a mediocre defense? Well, let’s take a look.
Sam Hartman – redshirt sophomore quarterback
As the conductor of the ACC’s highest-scoring offense (42.9 points per game), Hartman, like Pickett has this season, has taken a massive leap between his third and fourth college seasons. And he’s still technically a sophomore.
After throwing for 2,224 yards and 13 touchdowns as a redshirt sophomore last season (I know, the COVID extensions are hard to figure out), Hartman has thrown for 3,714 yards and 34 touchdowns this season. And he’s added an extra dimension to his game with 343 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground after rushing for negative yards last season.
However, after throwing just three interceptions over his first eight games, Hartman has thrown seven over his last four games — which include losses to North Carolina and Clemson.
Hartman is still the ACC’s third-leading passer in terms of passing yards and touchdowns, but his 10 interceptions are tied for the highest among starting quarterbacks in the conference, too.
Hartman’s junior season leap has come in large part from his increased gunslinging tendencies, completing 25 big-time throws (a leap from just 13 last season) to only 12 turnover-worthy plays so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus. While Hartman’s turnovers have increased at a rapid rate against tougher ACC competition over the last month, he’s still one of the premier playmakers in the country.
And with a healthy dose of dropped balls from Wake Forest wideouts this season, already with 19 dropped balls, Hartman’s mediocre 60.3 completion percentage jumps all the way up to 69.5 percent, showing the potential for greater success this in the future.
Also much like Pickett, Hartman has been an exceptional deep-ball passer this season, completing 41 attempts over 20 yards for 1,498 yards and 18 touchdowns to just six interceptions. With a majority of the damage coming from routes run across the middle of the field (1,054 yards and 12 touchdowns coming from deep throws over the middle), obviously, Pitt will be tasked with taking away opportunities across the middle of the field. And with a defensive scheme that leaves corners out on islands, the opportunities will be there for Wake Forest.
Hartman is highly rated on both play-action and non play-action plays, but nine of his 10 interceptions (with 10 turnover-worthy plays) have come off plays where Wake Forest hasn’t run play-action. And when Hartman faces pressure in the pocket, like almost any other quarterback, his success rate plummets.
Wake Forest’s offense goes as far Hartman takes it, and so far this season, that’s been pretty far. However, with Pitt’s strong front seven in his face, there is the chance to disrupt his game early and force him into a long day of playing on the run — if Pitt can take away the deep ball, that is.
A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson – redshirt sophomore and redshirt junior wide receivers
Three teams have two 1,000 yard receivers this season. Alabama, Western Kentucky and Wake Forest. And the duo of Perry and Roberson has been one of the most electric — and the most productive — in college football this season.
Perry has racked up 1,112 yards and 13 touchdowns on 56 receptions, and Roberson isn’t far behind with 1,024 yards and eight touchdowns on 64 receptions. As the alpha dogs on the Wake Forest roster, no other player has caught more than 35 balls or eclipsed 500 receiving yards, and only five players have recorded at least 100 yards through the air.
So, while the receiving corps is top-heavy, it isn’t an especially deep unit like a Pitt or someone similar.
Perry and Roberson operate in tandem in the Wake Forest offense, with Perry lining almost solely on the outside (90.3 percent of snaps) and Roberson doing most of his damage from the slot (77.6 percent of snaps). And both receivers are targeted, on average, about 15 yards down the field.
Roberson has been the premier big-play artist for Wake Forest this season, hauling in 14 contested receptions on 26 targets. Perry hasn’t quite offered the same reliability, making just six catches on 20 contested targets, but he’s still a threat to burn defenses on every play. Yet, with eight drops on 99 targets this season, Perry has also been known to drop a ball here and there.
In Wake Forest’s pass-heavy offense with Hartman under center, both Perry and Roberson are among the top-ranked deep threat targets in the country this season.
Perry has recorded 14 catches (on 28 targets) for 589 yards and nine touchdowns on throws over 20 yards, but he’s efficient in intermediate and short-yardage situations, too. And Roberson’s penchant for deep balls is just as effective, if not more so, with 16 receptions (on 27 targets) for 554 yards and six touchdowns. And both operate most effectively on deep balls over the middle of the field.
Perry and Roberson are threats to score on every Wake Forest offensive possession, and with Pitt corners left on islands in the current defensive scheme, they’ll be tasked with limiting two of the premier deep threats in the country.
Rondell Bothroyd – redshirt sophomore defensive lineman
Bothroyd has been Wake Forest’s most consistent threat in getting after the quarterback this season, racking up 59 tackles (33 solo), 14 tackles for loss and six sacks on a defense that is liable to allow opposing offenses to rack up points. A unit that allows just under 30 points per game this season.
However, while Bothroyd has been Wake Forest’s top pass rusher this season, he’s equally effective against the run. He’s recorded 31 quarterback pressures this season, forcing 22 hurries, in addition to his seven sacks. And with only three missed tackles this season, he’s one of the Demon Deacons’ most sure-handed tacklers.
Bothroyd has racked up 28 defensive stops and forced four fumbles this season while lining up almost solely as the out defensive lineman.
Traveon Redd – redshirt senior defensive back
Redd has racked up 57 tackles (35 solo), two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), forced two fumbles and recovered three this season.
As Wake Forest’s high-rated defender this season, Redd has been one of the highest-graded defenders in coverage across college football. Aside from picking off three passes with extended return yards, Redd has allowed just 18 receptions for 203 yards and no touchdowns when in coverage this season.
A versatile defensive back in Wake Forest’s system, he’s lined up across the Demon Deacons’ secondary to make an impact. And he’ll be the name Pickett needs to watch most of all in Wake Forest’s secondary on Saturday.
Wake Forest has a talented roster, headlined by eight all-conference players and seven honorable mentions.
Perry, tackle Zach Tom and kicker Nick Sciba earned first team All-ACC honors, Hartman, Roberson, Fox, defensive tackle Miles Fox earned second team conference honors, guard Sean Maginn earned third team conference honors and Bothroyd, tight end Brandon Chapman, guard Loic Ngassam Nya, center Michael Jurgens, linebacker Luke Masterson and cornerbacks Ja’Sir Taylor and Caelen Carson earned honorable mention conference honors.
While Wake Forest has suffered two losses in the last four weeks, the Demon Deacons will be a tough test, especially with the ACC championship game taking place in Charlotte, N.C. — an hour and a half away from Wake Forest’s campus in Winston Salem, N.C.
While Pitt may have the “more talented” roster on paper, even with Pickett under center, it’s going to be a shootout in Charlotte.
If Pickett isn’t on his game Saturday, Wake Forest has the offensive firepower to run up the score. Luckily, Pickett and the Pitt offense is pretty good, too. The ACC title game should be a back and forth affair, but Pitt has the firepower to outgun the Demon Deacons.