College Football: Wake wins ACC championship
By Mark Long
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Wake Forest’s defensive players huddled near the sideline, pushing and shoving, yelling and screaming, jumping and dancing.
They were trailing 6-3 and ready to do something about it. Riley Swanson did.
Swanson intercepted a pass from Reggie Ball on the next play, sparking a comeback that gave Wake Forest its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 36 years and sent the Demon Deacons to their biggest bowl game in school history.
Riley Skinner followed Swanson’s pick with long completions on consecutive drives, setting up Sam Swank’s final two field goals to give No. 16 Wake Forest a 9-6 victory over 23rd-ranked Georgia Tech in the ACC title game on a rain-soaked Saturday.
The Demon Deacons (11-2) won their second league title and first since 1970, adding another chapter to an improbable season in Jim Grobe’s sixth season. The finale comes in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 — the program’s biggest bowl game since the 1946 Gator Bowl.
“When you get our backs against the wall, these kids respond,” Wake Forest coach Grobe said.
Skinner, who grew up in the Jacksonville area, finished
14-for-25 for 201 yards in his homecoming — and may have had the biggest cheering section in the half-empty stadium. He struggled most of the game and was sacked four times, but he came up big when the Demon Deacons needed it most.
He hooked up with John Tereshinski for a 39-yard gain on third-and-10, setting up Swank’s second field goal, a 33-yarder with 8:27 to play. The kick tied the game at 6.
On the next possession, Skinner found Willie Idlette down the middle for a 45-yard gain, setting up a 22-yarder that turned out to be the game-winner.
“I can’t even put it in words,” said linebacker Jon Abbate, who finished with 15 tackles. “It’s been an unbelievable season. Unbelievable to be ACC champs, and I can’t explain it.”
Georgia Tech (9-4) had a chance to tie the game or take the lead but punted when coach Chan Gailey opted not to go for it on fourth-and-13 from his 18 yard-line.
It was one of several questionable calls for Gailey, who went for it on fourth-and-1 from Wake’s 13-yard line in the third quarter. Ball failed to pick up the first down on a quarterback sneak.
Gailey also ordered a field goal early in the fourth quarter instead of attempting a fourth-and-1 play on Wake’s 17 with the game tied at 3. Tech also called a reverse in the first quarter on third-and-1. The play resulted in a 9-yard loss.
“Obviously, it’s my responsibility to get this football team ready to play and we didn’t do well enough today to win the game,” Gailey said.
Nonetheless, the blame will be put on Ball, and maybe rightfully so.
He was awful for the second consecutive week. He was 9-of-29 passing for 129 yards, with two interceptions. He was 6-of-22 for 42 yards last week in a loss against rival Georgia and threw two interceptions.
The senior refused to talk after the game.
“I think with every quarterback, every time you can get pressure and get contact on him, you get in their head a little bit,” Abbate said.
Ball’s best passes were three deep balls down the sideline that resulted in pass interference penalties.
Tashard Choice ran 21 times for 100 yards, and Calvin Johnson caught eight passes for 117 yards. But Johnson also had two key drops. The second one came on a deep pass that he tipped into the hands of Swanson for the game-turning interception.
“That was huge,” Grobe said. “That was right after the defense got so pumped up. That’s where I looked over to the defense and I expected to see them tired and kind of sucking wind. They were dancing around and bumping into each other and ready to go.”
Georgia Tech will return to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl in four weeks — something Gator Bowl officials had hoped to avoid.
ACC commissioner John Swofford even said at halftime that the Gator Bowl would be allowed to select another conference team, essentially giving the bowl permission to overlook a rule that would force the bowl to select Georgia Tech (7-1 in conference play) over Clemson, Boston College or Maryland (all 5-3 in the league).
But the Gator Bowl relented after a week of complaints and invited Georgia Tech back following the game. The Yellow Jackets accepted and probably will face either defending national champion Texas or a team from the Big East.
Wake Forest, meanwhile, will head to Miami.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to prove one more time what this team is about,” Abbate said.
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