CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Erick Hallett II saw the receiver running to his side and knew the ball was coming his way.
He cut in front to snag a jumping interception and began sprinting for the end zone with the ball clutched in his right hand — then extended the ball as he crossed the goal line for the touchdown that transformed No. 17 Pittsburgh’s lead into a rout.
It was the highlight on a night full of them for a defense that powered the Panthers to the first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in program history.
Hallett’s 19-yard score was one of Pittsburgh’s four interceptions to help the Panthers beat No. 18 Wake Forest 45-21 in Saturday night’s ACC title game. It came on the heels of A.J. Woods having a 75-yard interception return that fell only 3 yards short of taking it all the way for the score early in the fourth quarter. And it all came as the Panthers locked up the high-scoring Demon Deacons after the opening quarter and ultimately carried the Panthers to their first league title since leaving the Big East in 2013.
“In the second quarter we used that take-it mentality,” Woods said. “That was the word on our board this week: take it. Because that is what champions have to do, they take it.”
The Panthers (11-2) sure took all momentum from the Demon Deacons, and abruptly at that.
After surrendering touchdowns on three first-quarter possessions, Pittsburgh held Wake Forest scoreless for its last 13 drives while getting after Sam Hartman for five sacks to stymie the Demon Deacons’ tempo-controlling flow.
“They bowed up and we played some great coverage,” coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Our guys made plays on the ball. I think we shook them up a little bit in the backfield and got them a little antsy. …. Our defense did a great job to shut them down.”
Hallett was game MVP with two interceptions.
Wake Forest (10-3) was back in the ACC title game for the first time since winning the 2006 championship. But the Demon Deacons finished with 295 total yards, with only 109 of those coming after the opening quarter.
“It was just tough on us,” said receiver Jaquarii Roberson, who was Hartman’s target on Hallett’s TD return. “Pitt was playing really good defense and we just couldn’t get a flow going.”
That only made things easier on star quarterback Kenny Pickett and the offense. Pickett accounted for three touchdowns while Israel Abanikanda ran for two second-half TDs, one after Woods’ return that stands as longest in the title game’s 17-year history.
“It’s not like we played an average football team and blew all these opportunities,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. ”They were good. A lot of errors today were because of how good Pitt is, and I give those guys all the credit.”
The game offered a departure from a recent tradition: watching Clemson roll past an overmatched Coastal Division champion on the way to another league title and trip to the College Football Playoff. And going back a decade, either Clemson or Florida State had won this game as the Atlantic Division champion before Wake Forest interrupted that run this year.
This game began with a high-revving show of four straight touchdown drives between the teams, including a dazzling 58-yard scoring run by Pickett in which he stutter-stepped near the 40 as though he was going to slide then took off around pulling-up defenders the rest of the way.
Wake Forest led 21-14 when Hartman hit Taylor Morin on a contested TD catch near the left pylon. But after that, Pittsburgh’s defense started getting to Hartman more often while the secondary that found itself under early duress began to hold up against those deep throws.
Sam Scarton’s 41-yard field goal gave Pitt a 24-21 lead at the break, then Abanikanda scored from 12 yards out around the right side late in the third to make it a two-possession lead and send the Panthers on their way.
“We’re gritty,” Hallett said. “We don’t take no for an answer.”
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons just couldn’t add another milestone in a what had become a special season full of them under their eighth-year coach, including the highest AP Top 25 ranking in program history (No. 10 in early November) and the program’s best-ever start (8-0).
Pittsburgh: The Panthers had reached the ACC title game in 2018 before losing a blowout loss to Clemson. They’re leaving Charlotte this time with the program’s first ACC title after sharing the Big East title in 2004 and 2010.
Hartman threw for two scores and ran for another in the opening period. But by the end of this one, Hartman had suffered through another nightmarish performance on a field about 20 minutes from his hometown in Cornelius. He ended last year here with four interceptions in a Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to Wisconsin, then threw for 213 yards before exiting with 8:09 left.
“Sometimes when you fall behind you force things,” Clawson said, adding: “This does not take away from the year that he had.”
Pickett broke a tie with program great Dan Marino for most career TD passes (now 81), and surpassed former Clemson star Deshaun Watson’s 2016 single-season league record touchdown passes (now 42).