Friedlander: Best and worst of the ACC's 2022 bowl season
Before the season, in one of the first columns I wrote for Saturday Road, I set the over/under for ACC bowl wins at 4.
That might have seemed like a small number at the time, especially since the league annually sends double-digit teams to the postseason. But it made sense considering that conference teams went 2-4 with 3 COVID cancellations in the postseason in 2021.
It was even more of a realistic projection considering that the ACC had only 9 bowl teams this season.
As it turned out, the league finished with 5 wins, and its 5-4 record marked its first winning postseason record since 2016, when it went 9-3.
Now that all the games are in the books, here’s a look back at the best (and worst) of the ACC’s 2022 bowl season:
Most dominating performance
Duke put the finishing touches on an amazing turnaround season by putting a 30-13 thumping on UCF in the Military Bowl. Quarterback Riley Leonard won the game’s MVP award by throwing for 173 yards and rushing for a pair of touchdowns.
The story of the game was the Blue Devils’ defense that sacked Knights quarterback John Rhys Plumlee 6 times in leading the way to their team’s 9th win of coach Mike Elko’s rookie year.
Least dominating performance
Syracuse outgained Minnesota 484-215 and ran 86 plays to just 49 for the Gophers at the Pinstripe Bowl. Somehow, though, the Orange managed to lose a 28-20 decision for their 7th defeat in their final 8 games following a 6-0 start.
How’d they do it?
Start with a 70-yard pick-6 by Minnesota’s Coleman Bryson midway through the 3rd quarter. Later in the period, after a field goal that cut the Gophers’ lead to 21-13, Syracuse gave up a 72-yard kickoff return that led to what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
The Orange then missed out on a final shot at tying the game when cornerback Alijah Clark was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, giving Minnesota a 1st down after it appeared they’d produced the defensive stop they needed to get the ball back.
Most promising performance
Florida State beat Oklahoma 35-32 to win the Cheez-It Bowl and record its first 10-win season since 2016. But the victory also served as a potential jumping-off point for even bigger and better things for the Seminoles in 2023.
Quarterback Jordan Travis, who has announced he will return next season, threw for 419 yards and 2 touchdowns. Receiver Johnny Wilson had a breakout performance by catching 8 passes for 202 yards, including a 1-handed reception that set up the winning field goal with just under a minute remaining.
Least promising performance
Clemson’s Orange Bowl matchup with Tennessee was just as much of a look into the future as Florida State’s was. It just didn’t go nearly as well.
Cade Klubnik, the heir apparent to the Tigers’ offense in 2023, threw for 320 yards in his 1st career start. But he was intercepted twice and failed to get his team into the end zone despite driving inside the Volunteers’ 25-yard line 4 times during the first half.
Clemson’s only touchdown came on a Klubnik run early in the 4th quarter to close within 21-14. But that was as close as Dabo Swinney’s team was able to get. Tennessee scored twice more before the final gun to pull away for a 31-14 victory.
Best farewell performance
Sam Hartman had already announced that he wouldn’t be returning to Wake Forest. But rather than opt out of the Deacons’ Gasparilla Bowl game against Missouri, he wanted to play 1 final game with his teammates.
And take care of some unfinished business.
He accomplished both goals by throwing for 280 yards and 3 touchdowns in Wake’s 27-17 victory in Tampa. Hartman’s 1st scoring throw of the night – a 5-yarder to Taylor Morin to open the scoring – was the 108th touchdown pass of his career. That surpassed Clemson’s Tajh Boyd to make him the ACC’s all-time leader. Hartman fell 33 yards short of joining NC State’s Philip Rivers as the only conference quarterbacks to reach the 13,000 mark in passing yardage.
Pittsburgh rallied from a 2-touchdown deficit late in the 3rd quarter to take a 34-28 lead on UCLA. But with a chance to put the game away, the Panthers failed to convert on a 4th-and-1 play from the Bruins’ 28 with 4:24 remaining.
The stop appeared to be a decisive one when UCLA drove the length of the field for a go-ahead touchdown with only 34 seconds left. The Panthers, who were playing without 5 starters, weren’t ready to accept defeat. Backup quarterback Nick Patti completed 2 long passes, then ran for 11 yards to set up a 47-yard field goal by Ben Sauls – his 5th of the game – for a 37-35 win.
North Carolina gets this one for both its play over the final 9 minutes of its Holiday Bowl game against Oregon in particular and the final 4 games of its season in general.
The Tar Heels played 1 of their best defensive games of the year and Drake Maye had thrown for 3 touchdowns in building a 24-14 4th-quarter lead. But they immediately allowed the Ducks to drive down the field for a quick field goal. Then after settling for a field goal with just over 2 minutes remaining, their hopes for victory ended when Oregon scored the winning TD in the final 19 seconds.
The loss was UNC’s 4th straight after starting the season 9-1 and clinching the ACC’s Coastal Division title. It was also its 3rd loss by a touchdown or less.
Best out-of-nowhere performance
Maurice Turner saw action in only 6 of Louisville’s 12 games during the regular season. He carried the ball only 31 times for 154 yards. But with Tiyon Evans having declared for the NFL Draft and both Jalen Mitchell and Trevion Cooley having entered the transfer portal, Turner was given a much more prominent role for the Cardinals’ Fenway Bowl matchup against Cincinnati.
The true freshman made the most of his opportunity by rushing for 160 yards – more than doubling his season total – on 31 carries in leading Louisville to a 24-7 victory. The Cardinals’ leading rusher, Jawhar Jordan, also surpassed the century mark by rushing for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns to make a winner out of interim coach Deion Branch.
Worst right-on-brand performance
NC State coach Dave Doeren acknowledged after the Wolfpack’s 16-12 loss to Maryland at the Duke’s Mayo Bowl that “it’s time for us to change and evolve” offensively. That was painfully obvious from the Wolfpack’s effort against the Terrapins.
It’s not that State was playing with a 4th-string quarterback. Ben Finley played well enough to beat UNC in the regular-season finale. Or the unimaginative play calling. That figures to change with the arrival of newly hired offensive coordinator Robert Anae.
The worst thing about the Wolfpack’s performance was Doeren’s decisions. Instead of going for the go-ahead touchdown on 4th-and-3 from the Maryland 9:23 remaining, he chose to have Groza Award winner Christopher Dunn kick his 4th field goal of the game to cut the Terps’ lead to 13-12. He played it conservatively again on the next possession after Maryland answered with a field goal. Instead of going for it on 4th-and-9 from midfield, he opted to punt.
Doeren coached the meaningless bowl game as if it was for the national championship. Or maybe he just didn’t want a vat of mayonnaise dumped over his head.
Best postgame quote
“Find me the place with the coldest drinks” – Wake Forest’s Hartman. when asked what comes next after his team’s Gasparilla Bowl victory.
Worst in-game quote
“Amongst all the illegal aliens down in El Paso, it’s UCLA 14, Pittsburgh 6. That’s with 11:15 to go in the 2nd quarter” – NC State play-by-play announcer Gary Hahn during the broadcast of the Wolfpack’s Duke’s Mayo Bowl loss to Maryland. Hahn was suspended indefinitely for the comment.
Fenway Park. With the Green Monster looming behind 1 of the end zones, the quirkiness of both benches being on the same side of the field and the hand-operated scoreboard made for a truly unique football atmosphere for the Louisville-Cincinnati game. The aerial views provided by ESPN were spectacular.
Worst playing surface
Tie between the Holiday Bowl and Pinstripe Bowl. Both games were also played in baseball stadiums, but neither field held up as well as the one at Fenway. Both became slippery, muddy messes when the sod covering the infield dirt began to give way (which happened early in both games).