WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – If Tommy Bowden never has to go to Wake Forest ever again, that would be perfectly fine with him. It seems whenever he’s there, whatever can go wrong does, and Saturday was no different.
This time, it was two batted around interceptions, a blocked punt, the ninth-longest touchdown pass in Demon Deacons history, and one very curious fake field goal call by the Clemson coach that led to his team’s demise. There was also Wake Forest’s 66-yard game-winning drive, to boot.
With less than a minute to play, Kevin Marion made a diving six-yard catch in the right corner of the end zone to give the Demon Deacons the shocking 31-27 victory over Clemson Saturday at Groves Stadium.
“We kind of gave it to them,” Tigers quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said. “They hung in there and fought. It’s not going to be fun watching the film on Monday.”
It’s the second consecutive time the Tigers (2-3, 1-3 ACC Atlantic) have lost at Wake Forest (2-3, 1-1 ACC Atlantic). Two years ago, the Deacs pounded Clemson 45-17 and it almost cost Bowden his job. But four straight wins to close the season got him a contract extension.
However, this loss may be even more painful because of how it happened and for the simple fact the Tigers had the lead and a chance to put the game on ice.
Following an interception by Nick Watkins, Clemson had the ball at the Deacs’ 30 with a 27-24 lead with 3:36 left to play. The Tigers ran the ball on first and second down and with 2:40 remaining, Wake Forest called a timeout to set up a key third down.
Whitehurst then threw an incomplete pass on a screen attempt to stop the clock and set up what appeared to be a 44-yard field goal attempt by Jad Dean. Earlier in third quarter, Dean had drilled a 47-yarder that gave Clemson a 27-21 lead.
It looked as though the Tigers’ offense once again got conservative, much in the same way it played for the overtime last week against Boston College.
“I was just trying to run as much time off the clock,” Bowden said. “I knew I’d stop the clock with a pass, but I called a pass and I think they rushed three and dropped eight. It’s kind of hard to find a whole and everything moves a little bit and you end up dumping off an incomplete pass in the flat, which stopped the clock. … If you complete it, the game’s over. If you don’t it stops the clock.”
Everything appeared to be just another attempt, but upon receiver the snap from center, holder Cole Chason got up from his knee, took a few steps to the left and pitched it to Dean, who was immediately tackled by Alphonso Smith to turn the ball over on downs and give it to the Deacs at their own 34 with 2:31 left.
“I anticipated needing points, not a field goal,” Bowden said of his decision to call a fake field goal. “If they scored a touchdown, which they did, they would have won the game anyway.
“I was trying to win the game. We were just trying to make something happen and win the game. If we convert that and continue on, the game’s over. …
“Had we stopped them on defense, I probably would not be answering that question. Had we converted that third down, I probably would not be answering that question.”
Now with the ball in hand, Wake Forest quarterback Cory Randolph, starting his first game of the season, completed an 18-yard pass on the third play to move it to the Tigers 37.
Then on second-and-13, Randolph completed a pass to his fullback for a pickup of 17 to put it at the 23. Two plays later, tailback Chris Barclay gained 14 on the ground to move it to the Clemson 6.
The very next play, Marion did a hook route and made the diving catch for the touchdown and a 31-27 lead with 33 seconds left to play.
“I thought it was ours to lose,” Tigers cornerback Tye Hill said. “And I guess we gave it to them.”
Clemson started its last desperate drive at its own 20. On first down, Chansi Stuckey made a great one-handed catch to put it at the 50 with 27 seconds remaining and with two timeouts left.
The Tigers then threw an underneath pass to tailback James Davis for a gain of seven yards, forcing them to call a time out with 16 seconds remaining. Clemson followed that up with another pass to Davis, this time it went for a gain of 13 and he got out of bounds to stop the clock with eight seconds to play.
Whitehurst took the next and final snap, danced around in the pocket and hit receiver Curtis Baham at about the 7 and he was tackled at the 3 as time expired.
“You don’t think it’s going to take that long,” Whitehurst said of the last play. “An eight-second play? There’s no way. There’s no way it took that long, to tell you the truth. But I guess it did and you try to call timeout right when he gets down. They held him up pretty well and I tried to call timeout and throw a fade for a touchdown.”
The failed score ended what, up to that point, had been another classic Clemson comeback.
The Tigers found themselves down 21-7 early in the second quarter after Wake Forest scored touchdowns following an interception and a blocked punt. It also scored on a 74-yard pass.
Clemson, as is its custom, fought and eventually tied it at 21-21 before halftime. It seemed like the Tigers finally had the game in hand and was just a matter of time before they pulled away for good.
Whitehurst finished 28-of-42 passing for 304 yards and two interceptions. Randolph was 20-of-25 for 222 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Clemson tailback Reggie Merriweather had 17 carries for 92 yards and a touchdown, while Davis gained 51 yards and scored two touchdowns on 13 attempts. Barclay gained 105 yards on 22 carries.
“At the end they did beat us,” Whitehurst said. “But in that third quarter and half of the fourth, we let them hang around. We had many opportunities to finish the game and we didn’t do it. We’ve got to find a way to do it.”