Last-second kick boosts Clemson
As soon as his foot struck the ball, Chandler Catanzaro knew that No. 9 Clemson was on the way to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
Catanzaro rebounded from missing a minute earlier to kick a 43-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Tigers (9-1, 6-1) to a 31-28 victory over Wake Forest and their second ACC Atlantic Division title in three seasons.
”That was the best kick of my career,” Catanzaro said. ”I was just so proud of myself for that.”
As were his teammates and most of the 80,000 at Death Valley. Players and fans streamed on to the field when it was over, swarming Clemson’s sophomore placekicker.
”I felt like someone had me around the neck there for a while,” Catanzaro said with a laugh.
Tajh Boyd overcame an awful start and two interceptions to throw for 343 yards and two touchdowns after the Tigers had fallen behind 28-14 in the third quarter. Andre Ellington had 98 yards and a pair of touchdown runs as Clemson finished 7-0 at home, its first perfect season at Memorial Stadium since 1990.
There’s more left to play for, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney.
”We’re always trying to be the best and today we’re the best in the division,” Swinney said. ”But we’ve got other goals.”
Next up is a 10th victory, something that hadn’t been accomplished in 21 years. The Tigers get their first chance at North Carolina State next Saturday.
Wake Forest would’ve controlled the ACC Atlantic with a victory. The Demon Deacons stunned the Tigers with 21 points in the third quarter to take a 28-14 lead.
Michael Campanaro began the Demon Deacons’ charge with a 50-yard punt return. Two plays later, Wake Forest had the ball again after Ellington’s fumble was recovered by linebacker Joey Ehrmann. It took Brandon Pendergrass two plays to break off a 19-yard touchdown run and put the Demon Deacons ahead.
Boyd was intercepted moments later on Clemson’s next series by safety Josh Bush and Pendergrass again made the Tigers pay with a 33-yard scoring run and a two-touchdown lead.
That’s when Boyd, Clemson’s first-year starter, showed the form that helped him lead Clemson to an 8-0 start. He was 5 of 5 on a 68-yard drive which ended with Brandon Ford’s 7-yard scoring catch.
The Tigers tied it with 5:27 to go on Jaron Brown’s 10-yard touchdown grab, a series on which Boyd completed six passes for 64 yards.
Wake Forest had its chances to build on its lead down the stretch, but Jimmy Newman missed left on a 32-yard field goal attempt with 8:45 to go.
”I thought we had a great opportunity and we didn’t take advantage of it,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said.
Pendergrass rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns, while Campanaro had nine catches for the Demon Deacons.
Clemson got two colossal stops on defense in the final five minutes to pull this one out, the last when Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson sacked Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price on third down to set up Clemson’s winning drive.
”We’re out there to put the fire out, no matter where it is,” Moore said.
Clemson played most of the second half without star receiver Sammy Watkins, who was injured on a third-quarter kickoff return. Swinney said the injury was not serious and his freshman will have a sore shoulder for a couple of days before likely returning to practice.
For a team with everything to play for, Clemson looked tentative and out of synch most of the opening period. Wake Forest looked as if it had watched plenty of tape from the Tigers’ only loss of the season, 31-17 to Georgia Tech two weeks ago.
In that one, the Yellow Jackets showed the college football world that one way to slow down Clemson’s high-flying offense was not to give them the ball. Georgia Tech had the football for 39 minutes to the Tigers’ 21.
Wake Forest used the same technique, holding the ball for 17:40 of the first half, 5:20 more than the Tigers. But while the Yellow Jackets capitalized on their opportunities, Wake Forest bogged down.
After defensive end Zach Thompson intercepted Boyd in Wake Forest territory to halt a drive, the Demon Deacons went three-and-out to give the ball right back.
Then a possession later, a botched lateral inside Clemson’s 20 from Tanner Price to Orville Reynolds lost 12 yards and Jimmy Newman was low and short on a 47-yard field goal try.
Clemson had its own troubles on offense. Boyd was shaky again on his passes and the interception he threw was his third in the past six quarters. The sophomore had thrown just three interceptions during Clemson’s 8-0 start.
Still, the Tigers put together a pair of 80-yard drives, both culminating in Ellington’s touchdown runs. He went in from 4 yards out in the opening quarter to start the scoring then leaped over the pile on 3rd-and-1 to give Clemson a 14-7 halftime lead.
Wake Forest’s leading rusher, Josh Harris, did not make the trip to Clemson because of a hamstring injury.
The Tigers were an afterthought when the season began and Swinney’s future was very much in doubt. Now, he and his team are locked in for a try the school’s first ACC title since 1991.
”There weren’t many people who picked us to go to Charlotte,” he said.