It was a bad case of déjà vu for three quarters Saturday.
Clemson suffered a rash of self-inflicted wounds on their way to falling behind 17-3 as the fourth quarter began with Wake Forest looking to increase their lead to 17. It seemed like the same script Clemson had followed on its two previous trips to Winston-Salem.
Then it happened.
Gaines Adams forced a fumble after a botched snap and returned it 66 yards for a 10-point swing. More importantly, the momentum swung in Clemson’s favor and the Tigers never looked back on their way to 24 fourth quarter points.
Tommy Bowden told his team at halftime that someone needed to step up and make a big play. It is possible that none have been bigger for the Tigers this year than Adams’. It allowed Clemson to exorcise a few demons and, at least for now, preserved any hopes they had of making it to Jacksonville.
The Tigers came in as the second best scoring team in the country with an average of nearly 44 points a game. That number took a slight hit as they only put up 20 points but the score does not tell the entire story.
Clemson really did not play all that bad offensively. It is hard to rack up 428 yards and average 6.2 yards per play if you are playing horribly.
The line had another great performance in pass protection. Will Proctor was given ample time all day and was never sacked. That is not a bad effort considering Wake entered the game ranked second nationally with 17 sacks.
They also provided some nice running lanes for the backs despite not doing as good of a job getting to the second level as they have done in recent weeks. The left side of the line is still struggling at times and the biggest reason why Clemson seems to run more to the right.
James Davis and C.J. Spiller complimented each other very well. Davis picked up a lot of tough yards when it looked like he was going to be held to minimal gains. There has always been a lot of talk about his vision but enough is not said about how he can work his way through the line for a four yard gain that should have been just one or two.
Spiller, on the other hand, is not as good with his cuts and getting through tackles in the hole. But his big play potential adds another dimension, as was evidenced on his 72-yard touchdown run. As he grows more comfortable and gets stronger, Clemson’s running game will reach another level.
Aaron Kelly and the rest of the receivers did a good job of picking up the slack that was created by the injury to Chansi Stuckey. Kelly especially looked good on a number of poorly thrown balls.
Jacoby Ford seemed to handle his increase in playing time as well as the coaches would have liked. He only caught three passes and his routes looked crisp.
What hurt Clemson more than anything was the play of Will Proctor. He was not nearly as efficient as he has been throughout the first five games. He has done a very good job of protecting the ball all year but that was not the case Saturday.
His interception that was intended for Thomas Hunter was a very bad decision. You never want to throw to a receiver that is sandwiched by two defenders, especially when it is a tight end who is not as athletic as a wide receiver.
His interception that was intended for C.J. Spiller was a very poorly thrown ball. On at least three other occasions – his completion to Davis earlier on the same play, his 41-yard completion to Kelly out of his end zone, and the throw to Kelly on the first drive in which the flag for interference was waived – he made poor throws.
Maybe it was the weather or maybe he just had an off day. Whatever the reason, he simply did not do a good job of throwing the ball.
However, kept his team in the game by maintaining his poise throughout the day and he came up with some big throws in the fourth quarter. That is exactly what you want to see from a quarterback when he is off.
Vic Koenning deserves another game ball for his collection.
Clemson’s defense looked much more disciplined than they have in the past and, with the exception of two busted coverages that went for big gains, kept Wake from capitalizing on mistakes.
The Tigers had been punished by the Wake ground game under previous coordinators but things have changed since Koenning arrived. They accumulated just 125 yards on the ground last year and were held to 31 on 31 carries Saturday.
A lot of credit goes to the guys up front. They did an outstanding job of allowing the linebackers to operate freely by tying up blockers. And even though Wake had some success through the air, the front four registered three of Clemson’s four sacks and they provided pressure all day.
The linebackers used their speed to run down a lot of the misdirection plays and forced the Wake backs to run laterally more than they would have liked. Antonio Clay seemed to do a good job of staying home by trusting his keys. There were a number of times he went untouched because he did not take false steps and was too fast for linemen to get to him.
The secondary took a few punches but answered the bell each time. Wake’s touchdown on the throwback to Riley Skinner was a great call that was well read by Duane Coleman. He recognized the play early and almost got into position to make a play.
Where Coleman failed was in how he recovered. Instead of immediately turning and running to the would-be receiver, he tried to get back while looking into the backfield. It cost him about three or four steps and a shot at making a play.
Wake’s other big pass play occurred when C.J. Gaddis fell down near the line of scrimmage. Him fallen down meant the receiver was able to get a clean release and the safety did not have enough time to close the gap.
Gaddis also looked a little confused on the Deacs’ first touchdown when he allowed to receiver to get behind and inside of him. I think Gaddis played extremely well when he was lined up as a safety but he continues to struggle as a corner.
The special teams nearly cost Clemson another game as they looked bad for the third time this season.
Wake took the opening kickoff to the Clemson four-yard line after creating a hole that looked to be about 10 yards wide. It is one thing if a guy makes a great play by using a couple of nifty cuts or breaking some tackles. It is another when he is allowed to run so freely.
It was a poor kick and the coverage never converged on the return man. That unit has a number of things that needs to be corrected sooner rather than later.
Jacoby Ford did not field a single punt and it killed the Tigers. Wake punter Sam Swank had four kicks downed inside the five yard line. Ford may not have been able to return any of them but at fair catch at least gives the offense a chance to operate with a little room rather than having their backs against the goal line.
Jad Dean continued to struggle with his kicks. His 52-yarder had plenty of leg but missed to the left. Another of his extra points was tipped but managed to squeak through and he looked slow on others.
Vic Koenning and Rob Spence had great game plans that would have led to a much bigger victory had their guys done a better job of executing. Koenning forced Wake into becoming a one-dimensional offense and Spence made good adjustments. He also never seemed to panic even when things were not going well early on.
Clemson was able to overcome a number of mistakes and a bad kicking game to pull out the win. In the end that is all that matters but they need to take a hard look at their performance and realize just how fortunate they were.
It was a great win for the team because they were able to get a good conference win on the road in a place where they have struggled mightily in recent visits. What this win does for the team’s mental outlook should pay dividends down the road.