WINSTON-SALEM--Wake Forest's quest for bowl eligibility officially came to an abrupt halt on Saturday afternoon, as the Duke Blue Devils scored four consecutive touchdowns to beat the Demon Deacons, 28-21. The Deacons (4-7, 2-6) entered the afternoon needing two wins to become eligible for postseason play. Wake Forest appeared to be well on their way midway through the second quarter, leading 14-0 over the No. 25 Blue Devils.
The Demon Deacons got their first break late in the first quarter when safety Thomas Brown recovered a Duke fumble and returned 59 yards for a score. The runner appeared down on replay and in photographs, but the ruling was upheld after a replay review. Wake Forest struck again early in the second quarter, when senior tight end Spencer Bishop hauled in a 6-yard pass from Tanner Price to stretch the lead to 14-0.
Duke (9-2, 5-2) finally found their offensive groove after a poor Alex Kinal punt from deep in Wake territory set the Blue Devils up at the Wake Forest 43. Five plays later, Duke quarterback Anthony Boone found Jamison Crowder in the end zone to get the Devils on the board. Duke struck again on their next possession when Max McCaffrey hauled in a 4-yard pass from Boone to level the score at 14 apiece.
With momentum fully tilted towards the Blue Devils' bench, Wake Forest took the second half kickoff and mounted an impressive 9-play, 75-yard drive that culminated in a 12-yard Price carry for a touchdown to give the Deacs a 21-14 lead. On the second play of the ensuing Duke possession, however, senior cornerback Merrill Noel went down with an ankle injury, and the Blue Devils immediately took advantage. Boone hit Crowder once again on a 58-yard strike that killed any momentum the Deacs had generated on the previous drive.
"That's a tough one," Price said. We needed that one game to keep our hopes alive. Being our last home game and last ever as a senior, that's hard to take."
Duke finally took control on their next possession, driving 70 yards in 9 plays capped by a 3-yard touchdown rush by Brandon Connette. Connette became only the third quarterback in ACC history to rush for 30 touchdowns in a career with that carry, his 13th touchdown on the season.
The Deacons had their chances in the fourth quarter, the first drive ending after Price was sacked on two consecutive plays to put the Deacs out of field goal range. After forcing a Duke punt, the Deacs were driving again when senior running back Josh Harris was drilled by Duke tackle Sydney Sarmiento at midfield, resulting in a fumble.
"I got hit hard but I should have been able to hold on," Harris said. "I don't know what happened. It's tough. It's your last year so you want to have the chance to play after your season. We can't now."
After a missed field goal attempt by Duke's Ross Martin, Wake had one final opportunity starting at their own 30-yard line. However, Price was intercepted by senior cornerback Ross Cockrell on second down from the 35-yard line. The Devils then ran out the clock and ran off the field, celebrating a 9-2 record and the possibility of playing in the ACC Championship.
The Deacs will finish out the season next Saturday in Nashville, taking on a Vanderbilt team that ended their season last year in embarrassing fashion with a 55-21 pounding of the Deacs in Winston-Salem. With nothing left to play for but pride, the Deacs are faced with the option of playing younger players as they look to next season.
"A lot of times you try to get younger guys in there and give them some experience," head coach Jim Grobe said. "If I felt like we weren't getting great effort out of our old guys and that they weren't trying their best then we might feel a bit differently. I think the old guys still deserve another chance to win another football game."
Senior nose tackle Nikita Whitlock agreed with his coach, saying that pride is the biggest thing going into this final game.
"I think our best chance to win is to play the better players," Whitlock said. "I'm trying to win. I want to win. I want to leave with a 'W'. To me it's all about pride, man. It's definitely all about pride and being a man. I'm not going leave with a winning season but I can leave with a win. I don't know what coach is thinking but he's going to have to drag me off the field."