THIS WAS THE kind of game Clemson lost in seasons past. The ACC contest came against an inferior unranked opponent. It came on a Thursday night. That combination once was lethal for the Tigers.
Not anymore. This time, the 19th-ranked Tigers survived. Tied early in the fourth quarter, Clemson managed to walk out of BB&T stadium with a 34-20 victory, extending its streak of wins against unranked opponents to 25.
You do not have to remind Clemson fans of the last time the Tigers lost at Wake Forest. It, too, came on a Thursday night in 2008. That 12-7 loss dropped Clemson to 3-3 on the season and served as the final game of coach Tommy Bowden’s career.
Bowden’s teams became known for building up expectations, then crumbling against sub-par opponents. During his 10-season run at the helm, Bowden’s teams lost to at least one unranked opponent every year.
There were some head-scratching losses in there, from Marshall in 1999 to Wake Forest in 2003 to Duke in 2004, to Wake Forest again in 2005 to Maryland in 2008. It seemed as if Clemson never could get over the hump and into national prominence, due in no small part to the Tigers’ stumbles against lesser opponents.
Twenty-two times under Bowden, Clemson lost to an unranked opponent.
Dabo Swinney appears to have reversed the trend. After Clemson lost 10 such games in Swinney’s first four seasons, the Tigers have not done it since. The string of wins against unranked opponents is the second-longest active streak in the country behind Alabama’s 53.
Swinney also has reversed Clemson’s Thursday night fortunes. The Tigers were 1-8 on ESPN Thursday night games from 1998 through Bowden’s last game in 2008. After losing his Thursday night debut in 2009 at Georgia Tech, Swinney has led Clemson to four consecutive Thursday night wins.
On this chilly and windy Thursday, Clemson trotted out a tried-and-true method for winning. The Tigers again relied on what is fast becoming one of the nation’s best defenses.
Clemson, which entered the game ranked 10th nationally in scoring defense (18 points per game) and second in total yards allowed (269 per game), put the clamps on Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons were limited to 7 yards rushing and 119 yards of offense.
Clemson now has allowed opponents 490 yards rushing in its past eight games, an average of 61 per game. The meager Wake Forest rushing total resulted primarily from five sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
It was the same kind of defense Clemson exhibited in recent wins aagainst N.C. State, Louisville, Boston College and Syracuse. The Tigers needed that stinginess against a scrappy but outmanned Wake Forest club.
Whatever could possibly go wrong for Clemson seemed to go wrong through three quarters.
The Tigers gave Wake Forest 10 points in the first half, the first seven coming after Adam Humphries fumbled a punt when he had difficulty navigating a stiff wind. The Demon Deacons recovered at the Clemson 13-yard line and two plays later were in the end zone.
The gift field goal came at the end of the first half when Wake Forest advanced the ball 30 yards in the final 21 seconds thanks to a pair of Clemson personal foul penalties. That led to a 50-yard field goal by Mike Weaver with no time on the clock and tied the game at 17.
Just when it appeared that Clemson was going to put Wake Forest away in the third quarter, the Tigers fumbled a pitchout on fourth-and-1 at the Demon Deacons’ 9-yard line and lost 8 yards. Had wide receiver Artavis Scott fielded the pitchout, he could have walked into the end zone and given Clemson a 10-point lead.
Instead, Wake Forest eventually countered with a field goal that tied the game at 20 with 11 minutes remaining. Then Clemson’s offense kicked into gear, securing the win with a 68-yard touchdown from quarterback Cole Stoudt to wide receiver Scott and a 30-yard touchdown run by Wayne Gallman.
The final, two-touchdown margin was not indicative of the closeness of the game. Clemson seems to be perfecting the art of winning ugly. In this case, it was an ugly win that probably would have been a devastating loss not too many seasons ago.