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Good to great: Wake Forest caps off an 11-win season with a 38-10 victory in the Gator Bowl

Preview: The Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-7, 2-7 in Big 10 play) vs the 17th ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons (10-3, 7-1 in ACC play/ACC Atlantic Division Champions)

Coming into today's (December 31, 2021/11:03am kickoff) 77th annual Gator Bowl (via TaxSlayer), this is a tale of two teams and seasons.

Rutgers is a late replacement (officially December 23rd) as Texas A&M withdraws on December 21st. While finishing their season with a 2-7 mark, as part of the NCAA exemption (if they do not have enough bowl-eligible6 win teams), they enter the game with tremendous confidence as a way to showcase a program on the rise. Under the leadership of head coach Greg Schiano (as this is his second stint with the Scarlet Knights), the team's offense leans on the quarterback play of Noah Vedral (1736 passing yards/59% completion rate along with 7 touchdowns and 6 interceptions), leading rusher Isaih Pacheco (647 rushing yards/3.9 yards per carry/5 touchdowns), and leading receiver Bo Melton (618 receiving yards/3 touchdowns) as they average 20.5 points per game. The defense is allowing 24.6 points per game and allows slightly under 400 yards per game; arguably, they are facing their toughest test in slowing down a Wake Forest offense averaging 42.9 points per game.

Quarterback Sam Hartman (3711 passing yards/36 touchdowns and 14 interceptions) directs the high-powered attack (averaging 483.6 yards per game) now keyed by receiver AT Perry (1112 receiving yards/13 touchdown receptions) and a running back rotation anchored by Christian Beal-Smith (557 rushing yards/4.9 yards per carry/7 touchdowns) and Justice Ellison (477 rushing yards/5.1 yards per carry/6 touchdowns) as receiver Jaquarii Roberson announces his plans to enter the NFL draft (and is not playing in today's game). The Deacon defense (allowing 29.1 points per game) looks to limit the Scarlet Knights' running attack (Wake's defense allows 209.5 yards per game on the ground while Rutgers averages 140.7 yards per game) and apply pressure as they have 32 sacks on the season and have a +7 turnover margin.

First half highlights

Rutgers wins the coin toss and defers to Wake Forest.

The Deacons' opening drive is a 9-play/4:28 scoring drive capped off by a 4-yard touchdown pass by Sam Hartman to Brandon Chapman to take a 7-0 lead. Rutgers responds with a solid 12-play 75 yards led by the running of Johnny Langan and Aaron Young's 12-yard touchdown scamper to tie the game at 7.

Wake would respond (2:55 later) with a drive highlighted by a critical gain/run for a 1st down by Christian Beal-Smith (on a 3rd and 1); once reviewed by the officials, AT Perry's 29-yard reception is ruled a touchdown, making it a 14-7 game (2:16 left in the 1st quarter).

To open the 2nd quarter, Rutgers employs some razzle-dazzle (a wide-receiver screen to Johnny Langan leads to him throwing a 27-yard completion for a trick-pass play) to get them inside the Deacs' 10-yard line. A sack by Wake's Jasheen Davis stops the drive as Rutgers settles for a field goal by Valentino Ambrosio to make it a 14-10 game.

A 27-yard reception by Wake's Donald Stewart and a near touchdown (complete with hurdling the defensive back) reception by AT Perry gets the offense in the Rutgers' red zone, and Nick Sciba's 37-yard field goal adds to the Deacs' advantage (17-10). After a solid defensive series to stall the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers' Adam Korsak's punt pins the Deacons inside their own 5-yard line as the Rutgers defense halts Wake's offense (their first non-scoring drive of the game).

Rutgers' potential game-changing drive (which gets them in the red zone/inside the Wake 20-yard line) is shut down on an interception by Wake's Gavin Holmes at the 1:42 mark of the 2nd quarter. The Deacs' offense would drive downfield thanks to key plays including receptions by Blake Whiteheart and a series of runs by Justice Ellison. A pass interference penalty and a near first down reception by Taylor Morin lead to a 29-yard field goal by Nick Sciba to close out the half with Wake holding a 20-10 advantage.

While Rutgers has a first half advantage in time of possession (17:30 to 12:30), Wake outgains them in total offense (268-192), including passing yards (200 to 120) and being nearly even rushing yards (Rutgers has a slide edge, outgaining the Deacons on the ground 72 to 68). Wake's defense contains the Scarlet Knights' running game to a workable 4 yard per carry and forces a turnover (leading to a field goal to conclude the first half) as Rutgers opens with the ball in the 2nd half.

Second half highlights

An interception by Wake's Zion Keith stalls the opening drive by the Scarlet Knights. After a 3 and out by the Wake offense, a sack by the Deacs' Dion Bergan, Jr keeps Rutgers' offense at bay. A 28-yard first down reception by Ke'Shawn Williams on a 3rd and 26 keeps the Wake offense drive alive, leading to another field goal by Nick Sciba (23-yard field goal) to make it 23-10 (6:37 in the 3rd quarter).

At the 5:36 mark of the 3rd quarter, a personal foul on Wake's Ryan Smenda is reviewed and changed to a targeting penalty (disqualifying him from the 2nd half/rest of the game). This gives Rutgers some momentum, but a pass deflection by Bergan, Jr on a 4th and 4 stops the Scarlet Knights (with 0:54 left in the 3rd quarter).

In the opening moments of the 4th quarter, Sam Hartman's miraculous scramble on a 3rd and 3 for 35 yards puts Wake in the red zone. A 1-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Chapman at the 12:24 mark gives the Deacs their biggest lead of the game; a 2-point conversation to AT Perry adds to it, making it a 31-10 lead.

An injury to punter/kicker Ivan Mora on kickoff coverage pauses the game at the 12:15 mark.

After Rutgers turns the ball over on downs, Wake's drive includes an important 4th and 4 catch by AT Perry for a first down and keep the chains moving. A late 27-yard touchdown run by Justice Ellison seals the deal as Wake closes out with a 38-10 win (their second Gator Bowl victory as they win the inaugural edition in 1944).

Post-game: the 17th ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-3, 7-1) defeat the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (5-8, 2-7) 38-10 to win the Gator Bowl

Wake Forest's ability to pull away in the 2nd half results in outgaining Rutgers (452-275); this includes clear advantages in the passing (304-165) and running games (148-110). The Deacs' defense holds Rutgers to 3.8 yards per carry, forces 2 turnovers, and produces 3 sacks to keep pressure on the Scarlet Knights' offense.

MVP Sam Hartman (23/39 for 304 passing yards and 3 touchdowns) paces the offense, and AT Perry's efforts (10 catches for 127 yards with a touchdown) lead the receivers. Justice Ellison (9 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown) leads the rushing attack. Luke Masterson (7 tackles) and Traveon Redd (7 tackles) are among the team leaders on defense.

Team MVP Johnny Langan (2/2 for 21 passing yards, 6 carries for 20 yards, and 6 catches for 57 yards) is the main presence for the Scarlet Knights' offense. Defensive tackle Mohammed Toure (6 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and freshman defensive back Max Melton (6 tackles) lead the defense.

Both teams conclude their seasons with today's game.

Notes: all photos and video taken by Andrew Snorton.

Photo grid 1: The top row features the Deacons entering the field, moving the ball, and scoring (one of Brandon Chapman's touchdown catches). The second row (left to right) features Wake Forest on offense against a game effort by the Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Photo grid 2: Postgame photos of Wake quarter/game MVP Sam Hartman, wideout AT Perry, HC Dave Clawson, Brandon Chapman, Luke Masterson, and Miles Fox. Additional photos are of Rutgers' HC Greg Schiano and team MVP Johnny Langan.

Video keys: Video of HC Dave Clawson (Wake Forest), MVP Sam Hartman (Wake Forest), HC Greg Schiano (Rutgers), team MVP Johnny Langan (Rutgers), and AT Perry (Wake Forest). To view the full playlist, visit the following YouTube list by clicking HERE.


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