The Seminoles (6-3, 5-0 ACC), who had dropped their last two games and had not won since beating Clemson at home Oct. 3, sit atop the ACC after North Carolina State's first loss to Georgia Tech Saturday. The Seminoles travel to Atlanta next weekend to face the surging Jackets (6-3, 3-3).
"I think the struggle that we had today, that's really nothing strange," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "I just think the conference is getting so much tougher that you are liable to get beat anywhere you play, especially away from home."
FSU also found the going extremely difficult against the improved Demon Deacons (5-5, 3-4).
The Seminoles trailed 14-0 midway through the first quarter and 21-17 at halftime, but took the lead for good on a 3-yard run by Maddox on the opening drive of the second half. FSU got in an early hole when Wake Forest drove 80 and 75 yards on its opening two possessions.
"They had the fire in their eyes. They wanted that bowl eligibility and they came out there and did a terrific job early," Maddox said.
FSU did a terrific job late.
Bowden's decision to start McPherson over Chris Rix paid dividends. McPherson, who had two turnovers in the game's first 30 minutes, bounced back and completed 28-of-44 passes, and FSU rolled up 533 yards of offense. McPherson also rushed for 53 yards. His first pass was intercepted and he fumbled at the Wake Forest 34 midway through the second quarter, which led to the Demon Deacons' third touchdown.
"He was our Commander in Chief," Maddox said. "When we needed plays, he demanded plays. When we needed just a couple of yards, he demanded we get them. He was just a real leader in there and I hope he keeps that up. Adrian has a very bright future."
McPherson was pleased with his performance, showing patience and composure in the pocket. He got the Seminoles' passing attack in high gear as he hit Talman Gardner and Anquan Boldin with scoring passes to get the Seminoles back into it after their horrible start. McPherson connected with nine different receivers, including Dominic Robinson, who snagged his first four career receptions. Tight end Patrick Hughes, who had just two career receptions entering the game, also matched his total with two catches.
"We hadn't won in close to a month and my job was just to come out here tonight, stay calm and try to get the ball to the open guys," McPherson said.
"Coaches opened the playbook up for me. I thought I could handle it and I felt like we showed that tonight. I can only get better with experience. I felt the offensive line did a great job protecting me tonight and the receivers ran great routes. Nick did a great job out of the backfield for us.
"I threw an interception, we got behind early in the game, it wasn't something we weren't too worried about because we felt like we could do some things on this Wake Forest defense and we just tried to keep our composure and make some plays tonight."
Maddox, a former prep All-American from North Carolina, also made his return home memorable. Conference rushing leader Greg Jones had 82 yards, but he left twice with a right knee sprain, and the Seminoles played most of the second half without him. Maddox scored on runs of 3 and 34 yards. The final score by Maddox came with 1:58 left to seal it for the Seminoles.
"It felt like the old Nick," Maddox said. "I felt like I was in high school again, just running hard, not trying to break every play. Just trying to get a couple yards out of anything."
FSU's defense was also the story. It allowed 155 yards on Wake Forest's first two drives, but shut out the Demon Deacons in the second half and held them to 383 total yards. Tarence Williams ran for a season-high 149 yards against the league's top rush defense, but Wake Forest lost for the 11th straight time to FSU.
Still, after this game, all fingers were pointed to McPherson for a job well done.
"It starts with the quarterback," Maddox said. "A.D. came in there and first play of the game and throws a pick. But he keeps his head. He led us to a couple of scores and then he fumbled, and that was another opportunity to get down on himself. But he didn't. He kept his composure. That's what you need - somebody who is going to lead like that."
Bowden also was pleased with his young quarterback, citing his calm demeanor.
"I think you would assess it as he played as good as hoped he would play," Bowden said.
"He did not play perfect but he played better than most people would have played with their first start, being 14 down in about three minutes. I don't know what you would call it but I think it's there. You have a quarterback there who is starting his first ballgame, he's only a sophomore, his first start, and he's got that demeanor about him, that calmness about him that doesn't seemed to be disturbed. He doesn't show any nervousness or anything like that. Charlie Ward had the same thing."
Added Boldin: `This is big for this team, just to show everybody else that the comments that people are making in the papers about us being a team in turmoil aren't true. We're a team, and I think we showed that tonight.''