With the game on the line, Notre Dame gave up plenty of yardage to Wake Forest. What the Fighting Irish refused to surrender was the lead.
Tommy Rees threw two touchdown passes and Notre Dame shut out the Demon Deacons in the second half of a 24-17 victory on Saturday night.
"The words I would use? Gritty. Tough," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "You've got to win games like this where it's just a gritty, tough performance."
Rees finished 14 of 23 for 166 yards with scoring passes of 38 yards to Tyler Eifert and 16 yards to Michael Floyd. Jonas Gray added a 1-yard touchdown run for the Irish (6-3), who outgained the Demon Deacons 341-297. Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions of the second half and held on to win its second straight.
Twice in the second half, Wake Forest had the ball at or inside the Notre Dame 10 while down by a touchdown - and came away with no points.
"That really killed us," Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens said. "It was devastating for our offense."
Tanner Price was 17 of 24 for 187 yards with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Pendergrass. Josh Harris added a 2-yard touchdown run for Wake Forest (5-4), which led 17-10 at halftime but has lost three of four.
The Demon Deacons squandered Josh Bush's long interception return midway through the third quarter when Pendergrass fumbled at the Irish 9. Wake Forest then had a first-and-goal from the 10 midway through the fourth, but lost 15 yards on its next three plays and David Newman's 42-yard field goal sailed wide right with 5:24 left.
Gray and Cierre Wood then took over on the ground for the Irish, who ran out the clock.
"We have a whole philosophy of, `Count on me,"' Rees said. "The defense did their part, and then it was their turn to look at (the offense), and for us to go out there and make some plays and do our part of the deal. I couldn't be more proud of our guys."
Gray finished with 92 yards for the Irish.
"Obviously, the third quarter was the deciding part of this game in terms of our ability to put points on the board," Kelly said. "We did a great job in the second half ... closing out the game running the football."
Gray tied it at 17 when he took a pitch untouched around left end for his ninth touchdown of the season. That came two plays after Gray appeared to score from 26 yards out, but an official review determined his elbow touched the turf inside the 1-yard line.
Notre Dame went back to work 1 1/2 minutes later, with Wood's 27-yard run up the middle setting up Rees' go-ahead touchdown pass. Floyd slipped behind a pair of Wake Forest defenders and pulled down a perfectly thrown ball in the right corner of the end zone before 6 minutes had elapsed in the half.
Ball security has been a problem all year for the Irish, who entered ranked 118th nationally in turnover margin, and it looked like the Demon Deacons were going to make them pay for Rees' second interception to Bush before Pendergrass' costly fumble swung momentum back to the Irish.
"I didn't think we were very sharp for two series to start the second half, on either side of the ball," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "And then we kind of got going pretty good again, and the offense moved the ball pretty good at times, but we didn't get anything out of it."
Harris put Wake Forest up 17-10 when he powered in with 28 seconds left before halftime. That capped an 11-play, 81-yard march that chewed up nearly five minutes and ended with just the fifth rushing touchdown allowed all year by the Irish.
The first meeting between the schools - and the only one scheduled in Winston-Salem - was billed as one of the biggest in Wake Forest history with an announced crowd of 36,307 at the 31,500-seat BB&T Field, the smallest venue to host Notre Dame since 1945.
The teams combined to provide plenty of early fireworks, with both scoring on their first two possessions before the defenses finally settled down.
Price capped the Demon Deacons' opening drive with his scoring pass to Pendergrass down the right sideline just over four minutes in. They traded field goals - Notre Dame's David Ruffer kicking one from 44 yards out, and Newman following with a 46-yarder - before Eifert slipped through a seam in the defense and Rees found him for a long score that tied it at 10-10 with 3:38 left in the quarter.