Wake Forest Outlasts Texas A&M in Belk Bowl Shootout, 55-52

Wake Forest Outlasts Texas A&M in Belk Bowl Shootout, 55-52
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Texas A&M senior WR Damion Ratley (4) catches pass deep in WFU territory.

By David Rogers. December 29, 2017. CHARLOTTE, NC — What started out looking like a long day at the office for Wake Forest against Texas A & M in the 2017 Belk Bowl ended up turning into a surprise party for the Demon Deacons. It just took a while for the WFU party favors to show up at Bank of America Stadium — and then they had to survive the Aggie party crashers.

COVER IMAGE: Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford delivers a pass. All photographic images by Brad Batchelor for Blowing  Rock News

The 2017 Belk Bowl was one of the most entertaining football games of the season — as long as you weren’t a defensive coordinator.  And yet, in a game where the lead changed hands four times in the second half alone, it was a defensive stand in the last minute that preserved Wake Forest’s 55-52 victory.

To call this game a “shootout” may be an understatement.  Each team rolled up more than 600 yards of net total offense.  Wake Forest’s 646 yards of total offense edged the Aggies’ 614 yards, almost a true reflection of the final score.

Named MVP of the game, Wake Forest senior quarterback John Wolford (Bishop Kinney HS/Jacksonville, FL) directed the Demon Deacons’ offense, completing 32 of 49 passes for an even 400 yards and four TDs, with no interceptions. He also rushed 15 times for 68 yards.

We were just the ones to make the last play.

A&M freshman QB Nick Starkel was spot on in setting Belk Bowl records for total passing yards, completions and attempts.

Exiting the stadium at the same time as Wolford after the game, Blowing Rock News asked the senior QB to reflect back on his early season visit to Kidd-Brewer Stadium vs. Appalachian State and whether the Mountaineers or Aggies was a tougher opponent.  “Oh gosh,” he recalled, “we almost lost that game. There is no question that App State had a tougher defense, maybe one of the biggest challenges our offense faced all season.”

In the Belk Bowl, the Deacons’ junior running back Matt Colburn II helped the offensive charge by toting the pigskin 21 times for 150 yards and one rushing TD.  Colburn’s 66-yard jaunt late in the first quarter gave him the second-longest non-scoring run in Belk Bowl history, the first being an 82-yard rush by Georgia’s Nick Chubb in 2014, against Louisville.

Although for a losing cause, Texas A&M redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Starkel broke a couple of Belk Bowl passing records:

  • 42 — Most Completions (previous record was 37, held by Duke’s Sean Renfree vs. Cincinnati, 2012)
  • 63 — Most Pass Attempts (49, Duke’s Renfree vs. Cincinnati, 2012)
  • 499 — Most Passing Yards (380, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott vs. NC State, 2015)
  • 4 TDs ties Dak Prescott of Mississippi State vs. NC State, 2015 and Cincinnati’s Brendon Kay vs. Duke, 2012
Texas A&M wide receiver Christian Kirk dances his way downfield, eluding a Wake Forest defender. He finished with 189 yards receiving, including 3 TDs.

At the outset, it appeared that Texas A&M would run away with the game, leaving the 32,784 fans who braved the cold Charlotte temperatures to wonder what had happened to Wake Forest’s offensive line.  WFU’s first drive ended with a three-and-out, and it only got worse when the O-line seemed to implode and sophomore punter Dom Maggio’s kick was blocked, only to be recovered for Texas A&M’s (and the game’s) first touchdown.

For Winston-Salem, NC’s favorite sons, gridiron disaster appeared in the offing when, on WFU’s next possession, the Aggies again held Wake Forest to a three-and-out.  And again an Aggie special teams player got a hand on Maggio’s punt, deflecting it behind a collapsing offensive line for only a 19-yard forward flight.  A&M capitalized on the short field by going the 55 yards in just three plays (in 39 seconds), to put the College Station, Texas men up 14-0 with not even four minutes gone from the clock.

Almost miraculously, Wake Forest found their offensive footing and scored 31 unanswered points to take a 31-14 lead with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half.  The Deacons’ defense demonized the Aggies for the rest of the first quarter and into the second, forcing four consecutive punts and recovering a fumble.  Meanwhile, the Wolford-led offense made the necessary adjustments to craft four touchdowns and a field goal over the same time period.  The longest drive during that stretch was nine plays that covered 83 yards in just 2 minutes, 13 seconds time of possession.

Led by Starkel and his favorite target, junior wide receiver Christian Kirk, Texas A&M was hardly done, however. The Aggies added two TDs in the second period, both Starkel to Kirk aerials of 52 and 10 yards, respectively.  The last came with just 18 seconds remaining in the half to narrow the Demon Deacons’ lead at intermission to just 10 points, 38-28.

In many a football game, a 10-point deficit is like Spanish colonial explorer Ferdinand Magellan of days long gone by having to cross an ocean, but not in this game and not on this day. With 1:59 remaining in the third quarter, the Aggies had regained the lead, 42-41, then expanded it to 45-41 after recovering a Wake Forest fumble and driving to a 19-yard chip shot of a field goal by TAM’s 6-4 giant of a junior placekicker, Daniel LaCamera.

Of course, it was a lead that would not hold up.  With 9:06 left in the game, Wolford and Wake Forest fashioned an 11-play, 69 yard drive that culminated with a one-yard plunge to paydirt by sophomore running back Cade Carney (Advance, NC/Davidson Day) and a tenuous, 48-45 Demon Deacons advantage. Given the offensive onslaught on both sides, reporters in the press box were taking bets on whether at least three more touchdowns could be scored n the remaining nine minutes.

Not quite. To be sure, Wolford & Co. left too much time on the clock.  Starkel found Aggie freshman wide receiver Jhamon Ausbon for a 13-yard touchdown completion after a 10-play, 72 yard drive that ticked off 3:02 from the game clock — but he also left too much time with the way his counterpart, Wolford, was leading the Wake Forest offense.

Picking up real estate in chunks, highlighted by a 16-yard pass to star redshirt senior tight end Cam Serigne, Wolford directed Wake Forest on yet another scoring drive of 13 plays, covering 69 yards in 3:26, with Colburn getting the honors in recording his only TD of the day.

Colburn’s one-yard run gave the Demon Deacons a 55-52 lead, but did Wake Forest still leave too much time on the clock?

Almost, with 2:11 remaining. After starting on his own 22-yard line, Starkel quickly got the Aggies to near midfield on pass completions of 2, 13, 7 and 7 yards, but on 2nd-and-10 from the A&M 49-yard line, the Aggies suffered an inexplicable delay of game penalty that set them back five yards. Now playing inspired defense, smelling blood in the proverbial water, Wake Forest pressured Starkel into errant throws. When on 4th and 15 the redshirt freshman’s pass aimed at Damion Ratley fluttered incomplete, the Demon Deacons and their black and gold clad fans began dancing and high-fiving in celebration.

“In that kind of a shootout,” the Aggies interim head coach Jeff Banks told reporters later, “you either have to get a defensive stop or you have to keep scoring. (In the end) we just came up short.”

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson is credited for working his mentoring magic to help the Demon Deacons in their rebirth.  He took the helm at the end of the 2013 season, after the Demon Deacons finished their 2013 season with five consecutive losses to finish 4-8 overall. In 2014 and 2015, the first two season under Clawson, Wake Forest finished with identical records of 3-9 (1-7 in the ACC).  With a couple of recruiting classes under his belt, the Clawson-led Deacons improved to 7-6 and bowl eligible in 2016, winning the Military Bowl against Temple University to finish his third season. This year saw even more improvement to an 8-5 overall record, 4-4 in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference, and of course the final win over historically an SEC power in Texas A&M.

“It took the last play of the game (to decide the outcome),” Clawson told reporters at the end. “Credit Texas A&M. Under the circumstances of playing under an interim coach, they played their tails off. We were just the ones to make the last play.”

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