- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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With 6:52 remaining Saturday at Duke, Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price connected with receiver Chris Givens for a 66-yard touchdown pass that changed the game. It was the final score in the 24-23 win over Duke, and the play was a microcosm of the entire season for the Demon Deacons: Find a way to win.
Whether it’s a key stop by the defense, a big run on fourth-and-one, or a recovered onside kick, the Demon Deacons have been making plays in the clutch this season, and it’s been one of the major differences in their 5-2 record so far. Three of their wins have come by seven points or fewer, including a 35-30 Atlantic Division upset of then-ranked No. 23 Florida State. If Wake Forest is going to stay alive in the ACC race, it will have to beat North Carolina on Saturday. A win would make the Deacs bowl-eligible and set up an Atlantic Division showdown on Nov. 12 at Clemson.
“Last year really wore our guys down pretty good,” Grobe said. “I think they came back with a little bit of resolve just to find a way to win. Last year, there were so many games we didn’t even have a chance in. I think our guys were embarrassed by their performance last year, so I think as much as anything, our guys just went into the season feeling the No. 1 thing was to find a way to get some wins. I don’t think we have any guys thinking about individual performances, I just think we have kids who are finding a way to win, and it’s important to them.”
They also realized early this season what it feels like to be on the losing end of a close game. In the season-opener against Syracuse, Wake Forest squandered a 15-point lead and lost in overtime, 36-29. Price was injured in that game, and the rest of the team seemed to fold without him. Instead of letting that game beat them twice, though, Wake Forest experienced what Grobe called “the catalyst” for this season in a win over NC State.
On fourth-and-short with 2:44 remaining in the first half, the Deacs’ defense came up with a pivotal stop. The defense was the difference again in the fourth quarter, when Nikita Whitlock broke up a fourth-down pass attempt to receiver T.J. Graham to seal the 34-27 win.
“I think that jump-started us and gave us some confidence that we can win late,” Grobe said.
The NC State game sparked a four-game winning streak, and Wake’s only loss since has been to No. 12 Virginia Tech. If the Deacs beat Carolina on Saturday, it will complete a season sweep of their in-state ACC rivals.
Price said confidence has been the biggest difference in the team’s ability to make plays down the stretch this year.
“As opposed to last year, we were really young, and we hadn’t been in situations we are in now,” Price said. “This year we have experience. We’re more mature because if it. Now we have to step up and make plays when we need to, just because we’re more confident and have a better idea of what to expect.”
Those within the program, though, were probably among a select few who expected Wake Forest to be contending for the ACC title a year after finishing 3-9. Because of their ability to finish this season, though, that’s exactly where the program is heading into Saturday’s game against UNC.
1dMax Olson and Jake Trotter