WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - All season long Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie Herring has been asking for someone, anyone, to step up and make a play.
Saturday, Charles Hafley finally answered the call.
Hafley, the lone senior in a secondary seemingly getting younger by the day, intercepted a James MacPherson pass in the end zone with 2:09 left to play, saving Clemson's 21-14 victory Saturday at Wake Forest.
"We had pressure in man-to-man coverage," Hafley said. "(Wake Forest receiver John) Stone was the inside receiver the whole day. He was the go-to guy. I had faith that it was coming my way."
The win was more workmanlike than impressive, but provided a lift to a defensive unit allowing 36 points per game in Atlantic Coast Conference play when the afternoon began. The Tigers also forced 3 turnovers - Chad Carson's interception to go with Hafley's, and a fumble - after coming up with just six through the season's first six games.
"The turnovers were the key," Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden said. "We hadn't had that many all year and it makes such a difference for our offense. We're not to the point on offense where we can dominate teams, and that makes field position all the more important."
The Demon Deacons (3-4, 1-4) appeared ready to tie the game with an impressive drive that began at their own 20 with just over 6:00 remaining.
Ironically, it was a play involving Hafley that set up Wake Forest with a first down at the Clemson (5-2, 3-2) 11 yard line with 3:00 to go. MacPherson caught the Tigers in a blitz at the 31 and found Jack Landfried open to his left for 20 yards. Hafley, providing help from his safety position, had broken toward another receiver covered near the sideline, then had to backtrack and chase down Landfried from behind.
But after two running plays netted Wake Forest just two yards, MacPherson - on third and 8 from the 9 - lofted a pass toward Stone in the left corner of the end zone. But Hafley made the right read this time, intercepting the pass in front of Stone to turn away the Deacons.
Clemson kept the ball for the final 2:09 to seal the victory, helping ease a jittery Bowden's nerves.
"I've been nervous every game," he said of the late drama. "Every game we have (seemingly) comes down to the wire. I wish we could dominate, but we're not to that stage yet. It's a credit to the players...they haven't given up and they continue to play hard."
"You've got to take care of the ball, especially when you're down with the chance to put points on the board," said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. "You look back at a 21-14 game and turnovers are generally the difference."
The Tigers' defensive performance was more heartening - if not uneven - than recent efforts, which was somewhat remarkable under the circumstances.
Already younger on the depth chart because of redshirt freshman Ryan Hemby starting at cornerback and true freshmen Tavaughn Monts and Travis Pugh at No. 2 safeties, Clemson played all but the first series without leading tackler John Leake.
Leake suffered a sprained ankle on a play in which he appeared to be the victim of an illegal chop block. No penalty was called, sending Herring into a rage on the sideline. Leake's replacement, true freshman Eric Sampson, held his own for the remainder of the game, finishing with six tackles.
The Tigers were able to overcome three pass interference penalties and several blown coverages by the young secondary, perhaps gaining some measure of confidence heading into next week's showdown with Florida State in Death Valley.
"It took a tremendous amount of character and focus by our kids to bounce back and fight the way they did," Herring said. "To do something positive and contribute to the team, I'm extremely pleased for our players. Boy, they needed it."
Clemson quarterback Woody Dantzler, who finished with 334 total yards, helped his team to a 21-7 lead by engineering a pair of second-half scoring drives.
The first ended with Dantzler's 3-yard scoring pass to freshman tight end Ben Hall at 6:35 of the third. Dantzler then capped off a 9 play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Demon Deacons answered with an 80-yard drive of their own on the next possession, hitting paydirt when Fred Staton crashed over from a yard out at 10:59 to make it 21-14.
The teams were tied 7-7 at the half, each scoring in the second quarter.
Wake started the scoring with a Tarance Williams 4-yard run with 3:34 to go. Clemson answered when Dantzler, scrambling to his right, found an open Derrick Hamilton for a 32-yard TD pass at 1:16.
1 2 3 4 T
Clemson 0 7 7 7 21
Wake Forest 0 7 0 7 14
WF - Td, Tarence Williams 4 yd run (Tyler Ashe Kick), 11:26
CU - Td, Derrick Hamilton 32 yd pass From Woodrow Dantzler (Aaron Hunt Kick), 13:44
CU - Td, Ben Hall 3 yd run (Aaron Hunt Kick), 8:25
CU - Td, Woodrow Dantzler 10 yd run (Aaron Hunt Kick), 0:06
WF - Td, Fred Staton 1 yd run (Tyler Ashe Kick), 4:01
First downs 19 24
Rushed-yards 41-177 60-193
Passing yards 211 151
Sacked-yards lost 0-0 0-0
Return yards 18 13
Passes 16-27-0 8-16-2
Punts 4-40.0 3-44.0
Fumbles-lost 1-1 2-1
Penalties-yards 8-71 3-30
Time of possession 27:31 32:29
Clemson - Dantzler 20-119, Zachery 10-29, Jasmin 5-25, Rambert 3-8, Team 3-minus 4.
Wake Forest - Staton 29-95, T Williams 13-37, Stone 7-36, Macpherson 8-22, F Davis 3-3.
Clemson -Dantzler 16-27-0-211.
Wake Forest -Macpherson 8-16-2-151.
Clemson - Hamilton 6-91, Crosby 3-36, Hall 3-17, Zachery 2-12, Currie 1-36, Jenkins 1-19.
Wake Forest -Landfried 3-70, Thomas 2-40, J Anderson 2-28, Stone 1-13.
Wake Forest 7, Clemson 0
Scoring Drive: 12 plays, 68 yards in 5:03.
Scoring Play: Tarance Williams 4-yard run at 3:34.
Key Play: James MacPherson's 26-yard pass to Ray Thomas to the CU 7.
Clemson 7, Wake Forest 7
Scoring Drive: 6 plays, 53 yards in 2:09.
Scoring Play: Dantzler's 32-yard pass to Hamilton at 1:16.
Key Play: Scoring Play.
Clemson 14, Wake Forest 7
Scoring Drive: 11 plays, 75 yards in 3:53.
Scoring Play: Dantzler's 3-yard pass to Hall at 6:35.
Key Play: Dantzler's 26-yard pass to Crosby to the WF 4.
Clemson 21, Wake Forest 7
Scoring Drive: 9 plays, 80 yards in 3:35.
Scoring Play: Dantzler's 10-yard run at 14:54.
Key Play: Dantzler's 36-yard pass to Currie to the WF 34.
Clemson 21, Wake Forest 14
Scoring Drive: 9 plays, 80 yards in 3:43.
Scoring Play: Staton's 1-yard run at 10:59.
Key Play: Stone's 13-yard run to CU 2.