WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Over the course of a season, there are literally hundreds of plays that shape out the outcome of a season. However, should Clemson attain its ultimate goal and reach the ACC Championship, one play in particular will standout.
It was the very first play of the fourth quarter, and it occurred when the No. 15 Tigers needed it most. It seemed the dreams of a championship were going down the drain.
But then out of nowhere, that fluky, lucky, brilliant, dazzling and timely play saved the day and more importantly, possibly the championship season.
Trailing by 14 and what appeared to quickly be 17, a botched field goal attempt resulted in a 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown. That play sparked a fourth-quarter explosion for Clemson, which exorcised all those past demons, and left Groves Stadium with a 27-17 victory Saturday afternoon.
It was just the third time in school history that the Tigers (5-1, 3-1 ACC) have overcome a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win. The other times came against Duke in 2002 and Virginia in 1980.
“Good team has to win a game like that,” said Clemson offensive guard Roman Fry. “We overcame adversity and it was great to see the guys fight back for the win.”
In that fourth quarter, Clemson went from being down 17-3, to being ahead 24-17 in just 7:25.
Coming into the game, Wake Forest had allowed just one touchdown in the fourth quarter all season.
And the Tigers can thank Gaines Adams, who rushed the field goal, saw that it wasn’t being kicked due to a bad hold, and, when the holder Jon Temple stood up to run, knocked the ball out his hands and up in the air, caught it and dashed 66 yards for the score with 14:47 left to play.
It didn’t give Clemson the lead, but it might as well have as the play opened the flood gates offensively and defensively for the Tigers.
“They just messed up and we capitalized on it,” Adams said. “I was kind of shocked that I got a play like that. … I seemed like he was kind of confused that it was happening.”
From there, Wake Forest (5-1, 1-1 ACC) seemed rattled. The Demon Deacons turned it over on their next two possessions, both of which resulted in touchdowns for Clemson.
The first score came on a 20-yard pass to Aaron Kelly with 11:09 left to play to tie it at 17-17.
The second one was another spectacular run by freshman C.J. Spiller, who bolted 72 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown to give Clemson the lead at 17-17 with 7:22 left to play.
“We played well for three quarters,” Demon Deacons coach Jim Grobe said. “We played an explosive, talented football team the way we wanted to for three quarters. When we botched the field goal, we lost momentum and didn’t play good football. We didn’t get it done and three quarters doesn’t win a game.”
In the big picture, it’s difficult to overstate just how much that one play means to Clemson.
That could be the difference between playing in Miami in January or making a return trip to Orlando just after Christmas.
“When you’re on the sideline, you can sense (the change of momentum), you can hear it, you can feel it,” Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden said. “It was just a tremendous lift. When things like that happen, you can just feel the shift.”
But right from the start, it looked as though it was going to be the same old result for the Tigers: another trip to Wake Forest and another painful loss.
The Demon Deacons took the opening kickoff and returned it to the Clemson 7. But the Tigers thwarted off a Wake Forest score when C.J. Gaddis forced a fumble and Duane Coleman recovered it at the 1.
That play, too, was huge in Clemson’s win.
But with Wake Forest up 7-3, one of those goofy plays happened again when receiver Nate Morton took an end around to the right, stopped and threw back across the field into double coverage and placed it perfectly into the waiting arms of quarterback Riley Skinner for a touchdown to make it 14-3 with 12:51 left in the second quarter.
Nonetheless, the Tigers never let the game get out of reach and were ultimately victorious.
“A lot of crazy things have happened here,” Fry said. “In all facets of the game, we made plays when we had to make plays.”