Matt Colburn

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Wake Forest holds off Texas A&M in wild defense-optional Belk Bowl

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If there were ever a game that was decidedly DBYOD (Don’t Bring Your Own Defense), this was it.

Twice in the first half of the Belk Bowl, Wake Forest (8-5) took 17-point leads on Texas A&M (7-6).  Instead of packing it in, though, the Aggies ratcheted up the effort under interim head coach Jeff Banks to turn a potential rout into a wildly tight affair, although in the end it was the Demon Deacons that prevailed and head home with a hard-fought 55-52 win stuffed into its back pocket.

The two teams combined for 1,260 yards of offense — 646 for Wake, 614 for A&M.  The combined yardage set a Belk Bowl record, as did the combined points and total plays (190).

Despite the offensive numbers, it was a pair of defensive plays on the part of the Aggies that shifted the momentum and nearly led to a disastrous Demon Deacons loss.  One forced fumble late in the third quarter led to a Keith Ford touchdown that, at 42-41, gave A&M its first lead of the game since the middle of the first quarter.  On the Demon Deacons’ ensuing possession, another forced fumble was recovered and ultimately led to a 19-yard field goal early in the fourth.

A one-yard touchdown run by Cade Carney four minutes later gave the lead back to Wake at 48-45 with 9:06 left in the game; Nick Starkel‘s touchdown pass a little over three minutes later pushed the lead back in favor of A&M at 52-48.

Once again it was Wake’s turn for a comeback, with a 13-play, 69-yard drive capped by Matt Colburn‘s one-yard touchdown run with just north of two minutes left proving to be the winning score.  A&M had one final chance to either tie it and send it into overtime or win it outright, but its last drive — and a questionable no-call on what appeared to be defensive pass interference — ended just shy of midfield as they turned the ball over on downs.

John Wolford passed for 400 yards and four touchdowns, all in the first half, as part of the win.  On the ground, Colburn led all rushers with 150 yards on 21 carries.

Wolford, incidentally, continued his stunning turnaround regular season into the postseason.  Prior to 2017, Wolford had thrown more interceptions (35) than touchdowns (30) in three years; this season, including today’s game, he’s thrown 29 touchdowns against just six picks.

Aggies wide receiver Christian Kirk, playing in what’s expected to be his last game at the collegiate level, caught a career-high 13 passes for 182 yards and a Belk Bowl-record three touchdown catches.  The triggerman of A&M’s offense, the freshman Starkel, passed for a career-high 499 yards in a losing effort.

With the win, Wake won back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2007-08.

Wake Forest scores 31 straight en route to first-half lead on Texas A&M in Belk Bowl

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A few of minutes into its Belk Bowl matchup with Texas A&M, things were looking bleak for Wake Forest.  After 30 minutes of play, the roles were decidedly reversed as the Demon Deacons have taken a 38-28 lead into the halftime locker room in what’s the highest-scoring half in the game’s history.

After a little more than two minutes had run off the first-quarter clock, A&M, playing in its first game since Kevin Sumlin was fired and Jimbo Fisher was hired, had taken the lead on a block punt that was recovered for a touchdown, the school’s first block punt since 2005.  Less than two minutes later, and after an Aggie got his hand on a second punt, Trayveon Williams scored from a yard out to push the lead to 14-0.

The following 13 or so minutes belonged to Wake, though, as the Demon Deacons scored the next 31 points to take a double-digit lead of their own early in the second quarter.  Senior John Wolford extended his stunning turnaround regular season into the postseason as he passed for four first-half touchdowns.  Prior to 2017, Wolford had thrown more interceptions (35) than touchdowns (30); this season, including today’s game, he’s thrown 29 touchdowns against just six picks.

Not to be outdone by A&M, Wake scored its own special teams touchdown, with Jessie Bates‘ 59-yard punt return stretching the lead to 31-14 with just over 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter.  That unit was not-so-special for Wake for most of the game, however, as, in addition to the two blocked punts, they had a field goal blocked as well.

And A&M’s interim head coach?  Special teams coordinator Jeff Banks.

That blocked field goal in the middle of the second quarter gave the Aggies a modicum of momentum as they turned that special teams play into a score two plays later, Nick Starkel hitting Christian Kirk, likely playing his last game for the Aggies, on a 52-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 31-21 with 7:31 left in the half.  Wolford’s fourth scoring toss, this one 37 yards to tight end Cam Serigne with 4:33 remaining, pushed the lead back out to 17.

The momentum shifted back to A&M right before halftime, however, as Starkel hit Kirk for a second touchdown with 18 seconds left to pull them back to within 10 at 38-28.

The Demon Deacons racked up 385 yards of offense — Wolford had 256 passing against A&M’s depleted secondary — to 306 for the Aggies.  Matt Colburn chipped in with 87 yards on the ground on 10 carries, with a long run of 66.

This marks the sixth time this season that A&M’s defense has given up 35 points or more in a game.

Kirk, meanwhile, already has a season-high 133 yards receiving on six catches.  Starkel has thrown for 313 yards in just two quarters worth of work; the freshman’s season- and career-high, 416 yards, is well within reach with 30 minutes to play.

Wake is looking to win back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2007-08, while A&M is trying to snap a three-game bowl losing streak.  If the Aggies can mount a second-half comeback, they will hit eight wins for the fourth consecutive season.