Oct. 10, 2006
"Expectation is a great breeding ground for miracles." That's the way Jeff Davis remembers the 1981 season. A quarter of a century ago, Davis led the Clemson Tigers to the undisputed national title in football. Coming off of a disappointing 6-5 season in 1980, Davis keyed a team that ran the college football table.
Clemson was no stranger to football success. The Tigers captured seven ACC championships in the league's first quarter century, including an 11-1 team in 1978 that finished the season ranked sixth after defeating Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. This was the game that ended the career of Ohio State coach Woody Hayes, who was forced into retirement after he punched a Clemson player. But it also was the first game as head coach for Clemson's Danny Ford, who took over when Charlie Pell announced in December he was leaving Clemson for the University of Florida.
Clemson had a number of key freshmen in 1978, who were seniors in 1981. Davis was one. He says, "We knew Clemson could win and win big, because we had seen it. 6-5 wasn't Clemson football, 11-1 was. Coach Ford made it happen. He was a great motivator, someone who would get in the trenches, someone who wouldn't accept second best. He expected you to be a man, to represent yourself, and your family, to do the work. `Don't cheat yourself, don't cheat the game.' He encouraged the seniors to take possession of the team, to make it ours."
The Tigers returned virtually everybody on defense from 1980 and it was an exceptional group. Davis was the man defensive back Terry Kinard says, "We looked to when things got rough."
|Jeff Davis touches the rock before running down the hill at Death Valley.|
Clemson tackles Jeff Bryant and Dan Benish made All-ACC, while noseguards William Devane and William Perry controlled the middle. End Andy Headen and linebacker Danny Triplett were standouts, while Kinard was the league's top defensive back and a consensus All-America.
Unleashing this defense was the job of defensive coordinator Tom Harper, a veteran coach hired that season. Davis says, "Coach Harper was quite the feather in Coach Ford's hat. He was a calming influence. He devised a scheme that was in tune with our strengths. He simplified it, freeing us to attack. We were physical and aggressive. Lay our ears back and go after people."
|Terry Kinard was the league's top defensive back and a consensus All-America.|
Kinard agrees. "Harper made all the difference. He was a better teacher, had a better feel for what would work. We became more of an attacking team, more blitzing, mixing things up, keep the other team off balance."
Unranked Clemson opened at home against Wofford, a late substitution for Villanova, which dropped football. Wofford scored first but the outcome was never in doubt. Clemson won 45-10. Tulane was next. The visiting Tigers fell behind 5-0 but forced seven Tulane turnovers and eked out a 13-5 win.
Neither of these outcomes was unexpected. What happened next was. Herschel Walker and Georgia's defending national champions rode into Death Valley with a 15-game winning streak. Georgia had handed Clemson its only loss in 1978 and had edged the Tigers 20-16 in 1980.
Walker rushed for 111 yards but it took him 28 carries. His fumble deep in Clemson territory in the first period was a harbinger of things to come. Kinard says, "This game was a tribute to our style of defense. Our front four dominated, they couldn't make adjustments, and their offense just fell apart."
Clemson harassed Georgia's Buck Belue into five interceptions and recovered four of Georgia's five fumbles. Forcing a team as talented as Georgia into nine turnovers was the epitome of Clemson's kick-sand-in-your-face-and-take-your-lunch-money style of defense. Georgia could muster a single field goal, while Clemson scored on a pass from Homer Jordan to Perry Tuttle and two field goals. Following the 13-3 Clemson win, Georgia coach Vince Dooley admitted, "Clemson intimidated us."
|Quarterback Homer Jordan completed 11 of 18 passes against defending national champion Georgia.|
The offense was also in the hands of a new coordinator, Nelson Stokely. Tuttle says "Stokely brought some color to the offense. He understood the strengths and weaknesses of his players and he made things fun. He liked to attack."
The Georgia win put Clemson on the national radar screen. They jumped to ninth in the AP poll. Following a week off, the Tigers started slowly against Kentucky, trailing 3-0 at intermission. Kevin Mack, Jordan and McSwain scored rushing touchdowns in the second half and Clemson won 21-3. Clemson started its ACC season with a 27-0 win over Virginia.
The low point of Clemson's 1980 season was a 34-17 home loss to an 0-5 Duke team. Clemson got its revenge in Durham, plastering Duke 38-10, as Austin rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Duke's touchdown, a 21-yard pass from Ben Bennett to Cedric Jones in the third period, ended a streak of 18 quarters in which no opponent had crossed Clemson's goal line. Late in the game Duke ran six plays at the Clemson goal line but came up empty. Davis says, "Playing hard for sixty minutes wasn't just a slogan. We meant it."
Clemson fell behind North Carolina State 7-0 the following week, the first time anyone had scored a meaningful touchdown against Clemson. But it wasn't enough. Jordan ran for 104 yards, including a touchdown, and Clemson pulled away for a 17-7 win.
The Tigers gave up a season high 24 points the next week against Wake Forest, whose quarterback Gary Schoefield passed for 270 yards. It hardly mattered. On a cloudy Halloween afternoon, Clemson produced the greatest offensive explosion in ACC history. "Everything clicked, everything," remembers Tuttle. The Tigers had the ball seven times in the first half and scored seven touchdowns. By the time the slaughter was over, the scoreboard read 82-24. Clemson piled up 35 first downs and 756 yards total offense, totals that would have been higher had Ford not emptied his bench. Eight Clemson players crossed the goal line.
Defending ACC-champion North Carolina was next, in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels were ranked ninth and were riding an 11-game ACC winning streak. Davis says, "This is what we lived for. A big game, physical and low-scoring. We worked so hard in practice that we looked forward to the games. We loved close games because we felt that nobody else had paid the price like we had to win. We were going to be there at the end of the game."
Tuttle adds, "It was a dog fight. You have to be the best in your neighborhood before you can be the best in the country."
The Tar Heels drove 64 yards early but a sack by Devane kept them out of the end zone. The field goal made it 3-0. Fullback Jeff McCall capped an 81-yard drive with a touchdown for the visitors but a botched punt gave UNC a safety. It was 7-5 at the half. The teams exchanged field goals in the third period and then the two defenses took control. Bryant sewed up the 10-8 Clemson victory when he alertly recovered a UNC lateral that most players incorrectly assumed was an incomplete pass.
Clemson jumped to number two in the polls after the UNC win. There was still business to take care of. Boomer Esiason and Maryland fell 21-7, only Clemson's second win over Maryland in a decade. Jordan had a career day, completing 20 of 29 passes for 270 yards, while Tuttle had 10 receptions. The Clemson defense hounded Esiason into a 15-of-38 nightmare. Clemson finished the regular season with a 29-13 win over archrival South Carolina, keyed by McSwain's 151 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Meanwhile, top-ranked Pittsburgh lost to Penn State in its regular-season finale, putting Clemson atop the polls for the first time in school history. The Tigers were matched against 4th-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Nebraska was a surprising four-point favorite.
|Jordan accounted for 180 yards of Clemson's 289 yards of total offense in the Orange Bowl win over Nebraska.|
Tuttle remembers the slights but he also remembers the anxiety. "Nebraska was a bigger-than-life program. We took that team and its history seriously. We had to get rid of the butterflies and convince ourselves that we could beat them."
Davis was a key, getting in the face of his teammates early, exhorting them not to back down.
Clemson took a 3-0 lead but Nebraska made it 7-3 when star running back Mike Rozier hit Anthony Steels with a halfback option pass. Kinard was the victim, "the first time in my life I got beat on that play and the last time. It was a smart call, designed to take advantage of our aggressiveness."
A Donald Igwebuike field goal made it 7-6. The Clemson defense, as it had done so often, forced a fumble late in the half. Austin took it in from the two for a 12-7 halftime lead.
Clemson dominated the third period. A time-consuming, 75-yard drive ended when Jordan hit Tuttle from the 13 to make the score 19-7. Another field goal made it 22-7 with 2:36 left in the third quarter.
Nebraska didn't go quietly. Roger Craig finished off a 69-yard drive with a tackle-breaking 26-yard touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion that made the score 22-15 with 9:15 left. Nebraska got the ball back with 7:49 left but was forced to punt. Jordan scrambled for a first down on 3rd and 23 and the Tigers ran out all but the last six seconds. Nebraska's last, desperate pass was batted down and Clemson had the game and the national title.
In many respects, Clemson's title remains a singular event. Maryland was voted national champion in 1953 but the AP poll was taken before the bowl games and Maryland lost its Orange Bowl game to Oklahoma 7-0. Clemson remains the only one of the ACC's original schools to have an undefeated national champion on the gridiron.
Kinard played for the New York Giants when they won Super Bowl XXI but says "The NCAA title is better in my book. We were more of a family, had more camaraderie, more friendship. That had a lot to do with Coach Ford. We were a team not just a bunch of individuals." Tuttle, who won a pair of Grey Cup titles in Canada, agrees. "In college, you're winning for the team, the city, the alumni, your league, your friends, your high school coach. It's a bigger community and one that lasts longer."
Jeff Davis has thought a lot about that season. "We were college boys trying to become men. We cared about each other. We shared victories, we shared defeat, we shared the hard work. Playing a childhood game that you loved with your best friends at a great university. What could be better? "We captured the essence of football, how football is supposed to be played, how it is supposed to impact your life."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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