WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Clemson was tired of leaving Wake Forest with embarrassing losses, so the 15th-ranked Tigers spent the past week promising they would prove something to the Demon Deacons.
And after three sloppy quarters, they finally did.
C.J. Spiller ran 72 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, defensive lineman Gaines Adams returned a fumble for a score and Clemson rallied from 14 points down in the fourth quarter of a 27-17 win over Wake Forest on Saturday to avoid a third straight loss at Groves Stadium.
"Two years in a row here, playing in this stadium, it brings us trouble," Adams said. "Everything was going their way the first half, and partially the second half, but we kept fighting."
Adams started Clemson's comeback by causing a fumble after a muffed snap on a field-goal attempt, recovering the ball and returning it 66 yards for the momentum-changing score on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"I would very much say if we continue to do well, that could very well be the (signature) play" of Clemson's season, coach Tommy Bowden said. "In my opinion, it was (the play) of the game."
Wake Forest was poised to take a 17-point lead when Sam Swank lined up for a 42-yard field-goal attempt. But holder Jon Temple had trouble handling the snap, so he pulled the ball up and tried to run. Almost immediately, Adams burst through the line and leveled him at the 34. The ball popped into the air, Adams snatched it and ran 66 yards for a touchdown to pull Clemson to 17-10.
"They just messed up. I was surprised he didn't fall on the ball," Adams said.
Spiller finished with 104 yards and James Davis added 95 for the Tigers (5-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who denied the Demon Deacons (5-1, 1-1) their first 6-0 start since 1944.
"We played well enough for three quarters, and then played poorly in every area in the fourth quarter," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said.
Will Proctor was 20-of-30 passing for 214 yards and a touchdown, and Clemson overcame his fumble and three interceptions by scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter and making all the plays that mattered.
"That was probably the worst I've played since Pop Warner," Proctor said.
He got plenty of help from the defense and special teams. Wake Forest led 17-3 entering the final 15 minutes and looked to extend its lead to 17 before Swank's field-goal attempt turned into Adams' touchdown.
The Tigers forced Riley Skinner to fumble on the Deacons' next possession. Five plays later, Proctor tied it at 17-all with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Kelly.
Spiller then all but sealed it when he took a handoff at the 28, ran through Chip Vaughn's tackle attempt and sprinted down the right sideline into the end zone.
"He had fresh legs, he's a sprinter and when he got into the second level, there was no catching him," Bowden said.
Skinner was 18-of-23 passing for 169 yards with an interception, and he threw for one touchdown and caught another on a trick play.
But Clemson had 428 total yards to the Demon Deacons' 219 and the Tigers wouldn't be denied in their bid to end a two-game losing streak at Groves Stadium.
"By the time things got closer, we just didn't have the intensity we needed," Skinner said. "It's hard to turn the ball over and win against a team like Clemson."
The Tigers were embarrassed after losing here in 2003 and last season, and in the days leading up to the game vowed that this trip to Winston-Salem would be different.
But for the first three quarters, the Demon Deacons - who entered as nearly 17-point underdogs - mostly were in control.
"We played an explosive, talented football team the way we wanted to for three quarters," Grobe said. "When we botched the field goal, we lost momentum and didn't play good football."
Jad Dean had field goals of 20 and 23 yards for the Tigers.
Skinner put Wake Forest ahead 7-3 with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Willie Idlette, then pushed the lead to 11 early in the second quarter when he caught a 19-yard score from quarterback-turned-receiver Nate Morton.
Swank pushed the Demon Deacons' lead to 17-3 with a 22-yard field goal.