WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. | Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner watched Clemson and North Carolina State win early games Saturday and he knew the math. The Atlantic Coast Conference now had 10 bowl-eligible teams and nine guaranteed spots.
Could little ol' Wake Forest be the team left out?
"You knew there's no guarantee we're going to a bowl if we lose this game," Skinner said. "That was a little bit of — not pressure — but it gave us some motivation."
The Demon Deacons (7-5) didn't officially lock up a berth after Saturday's 23-10 win over Vanderbilt, but their prospects were certainly enhanced by holding off the pesky, injury-plagued Commodores.
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"We knew we better win seven football games," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "If we were sitting at 6-6, I think that would make our selection a little bit tougher. Hopefully with seven wins, hopefully that will help."
They can thank Alphonso Smith — again.
Playing in his final home game, the senior tied an ACC record with his 20th career interception late in the fourth quarter. It set up Rich Belton's game-clinching touchdown run two plays later.
Chip Vaughn added an interception and recovered a fumble, and Wake got just enough offense on an ugly night.
Persistent rain, wind and a temperature dipping into the upper 30s led to a half-filled stadium and plenty of sloppiness in a game involving two teams that came in mired in late-season slumps.
But Brandon Pendergrass and Kevin Harris also had rushing touchdowns for the Demon Deacons, who bounced back from a crushing home loss to Boston College a week earlier that ended their chances for a second trip to the ACC title game in three years.
"I'm pretty confident we've got another game to play," Grobe said. "I'd be disappointed if we didn't."
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is assured of their first bowl appearance since 1982. But the Commodores (6-6) will enter the postseason having lost two straight games and six of seven.
Plus, their top two quarterbacks were knocked out of the game Saturday. Commodores coach Bobby Johnson said Mackenzie Adams was having tests to see if he broke his right collarbone. Chris Nickson sustained a concussion.
That left redshirt freshman Larry Smith, who made his college debut in the second half. After a slow start, he threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Barden on fourth down on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut Wake's lead to 17-10.
He nearly had the tying touchdown, but Sean Walker dropped a pass over the middle after beating two defenders — including Smith.
"With a freshman quarterback, you only have so many opportunities," Johnson said. "He made a heck of a throw on one play that we should have at least a long gain if not a touchdown. If you expect to win, you've got to make those plays."
On the next play, after a penalty pushed them back and forced Smith to throw from his end zone, he was intercepted by Alphonso Smith with 4:14 left. That tied former North Carolina cornerback Dre' Bly's ACC career interception record.
"It was nice to see him bounce back and get that pick," Grobe said. "Dre' Bly is a pretty good player. He's in some pretty good company."
Belton's 4-yard run two plays later continued the Commodores' free-fall after a 5-0 start.
It couldn't have impressed the Chick-fil-A bowl scout watching the Commodores as a possible Southeastern Conference team in the Atlanta-based bowl. Like the ACC, that league's bowl situation was in flux after losses by LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the final weekend. The Liberty Bowl is another place the Commodores could land.
"We're definitely proud to be bowl-eligible and all that," safety Joel Caldwell said. "But obviously losing the last two hurts pretty bad."
Skinner was 13 of 20 for 173 yards for Wake Forest. He directed a 98-yard drive in the second quarter — the longest by the Demon Deacons in over five years — capped by Pendergrass' 6-yard scamper to put Wake Forest ahead to stay.
But Pendergrass was later slowed by a sprained ankle, giving the little-used Harris time. His 8-yard touchdown run in a driving rain midway through the third quarter made it 17-3.
That stood up despite Smith's decent debut for Vanderbilt. He completed 9 of 17 passes for 46 yards and was sacked twice in a disappointing end to regular season that started so promising for Vanderbilt.
"It's been 14 weeks, 12 tough games," Johnson said. "It's time for our guys to take a break and get their legs back under them."