Smith’s pick saves Wake

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 1, 2008

By Bret Strelow
WINSTON-SALEM ó The troubling sound in Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe’s ear confirmed what Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis saw.
Two receivers to the right. One defensive back in coverage.
Lewis threw in the direction of Eron Riley, but cornerback Alphonso Smith saved another game for the Demon Deacons.
Smith’s overtime interception at the goal line lifted Wake to a 33-30 victory against Duke at BB&T Field on Saturday. Shane Popham broke the tie by making a 28-yard field goal, and Lewis fired toward the end zone on the Blue Devils’ second offensive play.
Strong safety Kevin Patterson, who couldn’t hear the defensive call, lined up out of position. Smith noticed he had no help behind him and attempted to play halfway between a pair of receivers running go routes. He hovered in the middle of the field and snagged Lewis’ underthrown pass.
“It’s just like when a team’s doing a trick play and they’ve got you,” Smith said. “You’ve just got to play hard. If you play hard and hustle, you have a chance to make a play. You have a chance to make it right.”
Smith, who blocked a punt to give Wake (5-3, 3-2 ACC) an early two points, increased his career interception total to a school-record 19 by picking off two passes against the Blue Devils (4-4, 1-3).
The final play reminded Grobe of Smith’s game-changing effort in a 31-24 overtime victory against Maryland last season. The Deacs trailed 24-3 before Smith returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
The reaction by Wake’s assistant coaches as Duke snapped the ball for the final time didn’t encourage Grobe.
“There was kind of a groan from the pressbox,” Grobe said. “I think they felt like that could have been a touchdown. What I think we’re going to see is, like the Maryland game last year, Alphonso ends up playing two people. He got stuck right in the middle of both of them and just took off and made a play.
“He does that once in a while. Sometimes having a guy like Alphonso’s better than coaching them good.”
Lewis threw for 229 yards and two touchdowns to lead Duke, which endured costly struggles on special teams.
Wake scored after Jabari Marshall fumbled the opening kickoff, and Smith’s block produced a safety that broke a 7-all tie. Alex Frye’s 57-yard return of the free kick set up the first of Popham’s three field goals.
The second half featured four lead changes, and the Blue Devils were ahead 23-22 when Donovan Varner muffed a punt at Duke’s 33-yard line. Wake quarterback Riley Skinner connected with D.J. Boldin for a 20-yard touchdown three plays later.
Duke tied the game on Lewis’ 20-yard TD pass to Clifford Harris with 6:48 left, and the Blue Devils had a chance to win on the final play of regulation. Nick Maggio’s 42-yard field goal sailed wide right.
“What had been a plus for us in the kicking game turned into somewhat of a nightmare,” first-year Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
Wake kicker Sam Swank (strained quad) missed his fourth straight contest, but Popham came through as the Deacs ended a string of offensive futility and moved within a half-game of division-leading Maryland.
Popham was 3-for-8 on field goals entering Saturday. His 44-yard kick in the third quarter erased a 20-19 deficit, and his overtime conversion held up as the winning points.
“That was so cool,” Grobe said. “Really cool.
“I had really not been very happy with him the past three weeks. I gave him the first couple weeks because I thought about a rookie getting thrown in the fire, you have to love him up a little bit. We haven’t been loving him up too much the last couple of weeks.”