By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
CLEMSON, SC (AP) No. 7 Clemson has staged several impressive rallies during its stellar season. So it's no surprise that the Tigers pulled off their most dramatic comeback of the year to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division.
Several fans at Death Valley booed when Clemson trailed Troy 16-13 at halftime of Week 1. The Tigers went on to a 43-19 victory.
There were only cheers and screams of joy Saturday when Chandler Catanzaro kicked a perfect, 43-yard field goal as time ran out in Clemson's 31-28 win over Wake Forest that sent the Tigers (9-1, 6-1) to next month's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
"Words cannot describe what it means to build a team like this and go to an ACC championship," offensive tackle Landon Walker said.
Walker's team seems to buckle down whenever it gets pushed into a corner. The Tigers have trailed in 8 of 10 games this season and prevailed in every one but a 31-17 loss at Georgia Tech on Oct. 30.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, holding the ACC Atlantic trophy high and smiling wide, praised his players' ability to scratch back from adversity and find success.
"Anything they're not going to do is quit," Swinney said.
That was clear to anyone watching against Wake Forest.
The Demon Deacons scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes in the third quarter to take a 28-14 lead. Michael Campanaro had a 50-yard punt return, then Brandon Pendergrass followed with scoring runs of 19 and 33 yards on Wake Forest's next two possessions to quiet the 80,000 at Death Valley.
The sluggish Tigers appeared to be stunned. They responded with fiery play on offense and defense.
"I looked at the clock and it's like 'Man, we worked too long to go out here and lose again,'" Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "In my mind, it is just not going to happen."
Boyd, who had thrown two interceptions and was just 9 of 20 passing midway through the third quarter, started to play like the ACC passing leader he'd been most of the season.
Boyd was 5 of 5 on Clemson's next drive, ending with his 7-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Ford. Two series later, Boyd helped lead the Tigers to their third touchdown drive of 80 yards in the game. He finished it off with a tying 10-yard TD throw to Jaron Brown.
Clemson's defense showed its teeth, too. Criticized for its inability to stop Georgia Tech, the Tigers were having the same trouble with the Demon Deacons for much of this one. That changed in the second half after Wake Forest moved in front. Clemson forced three punts in the game's final 12 minutes and Wake Forest's Jimmy Newman missed a 32-yard field goal after the Tigers failed on a fourth & short deep in their territory.
Defensive linemen Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson collapsed on Tanner Price in the game's final minute for Clemson's only sack. That gave the Tigers a final chance to avoid overtime.
Boyd connected on passes of 16 and 17 yards to Dwayne Allen. When Adam Humphries followed with an 8-yard catch, Swinney sent in Catanzaro, who only a minute earlier had sailed a 30-yard try left of the goal post.
This time, Catanzaro was straight and true, starting a celebration among players and fans who swarmed him at midfield.
"I guess that first one was a little too close," Swinney joked.
Swinney said the victory completed 1 of the Tigers' goals posted in the team meeting room: Win the division. There are plenty of goals left.
The Tigers can record a 10th victory by beating North Carolina State next week, something the program hasn't achieved in 21 years. They've lost two straight to rival South Carolina, a modest streak no one wearing orange wants to see grow to three. And then comes the ACC title game, another place Clemson hasn't reached in two decades.
Swinney thinks the Tigers have the right makeup to achieve them all, no matter how far behind they may fall.
"We have a quote in our locker room that says 'Never, never, never give up,' " he said.
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