With the stadium nearly empty, the 10,000 or so Clemson fans inside Williams-Brice Stadium gathered in the corner with the Clemson players and broke out into a chant “Tom-my Bow-den! Tom-my Bow-den!”
Three weeks earlier they were chanting something totally different following a 45-17 loss at Wake Forest. Unlike that cold night in Columbia in 2003, Tiger fans were asking for their head coach’s head. But a surprising 26-10 victory over No. 3 Florida State the next week, a route of Duke and then a win over South Carolina that only needs to be introduced by its score, 63-17, took Bowden off the hot seat and up on a pedestal.
“We proved a point that he is our coach and he is going to be the coach here,” linebacker John Leake said after the game. “And I’m happy for Coach Bowden.”
Bowden was happy the minute the game started because the Tigers went on the attack right off the bat. Charlie Whitehurst, who was 7-for-7 for 149 yards in the first quarter, threw three touchdown passes—36 yards to Derrick Hamilton, 28 yards to Airese Currie and 39 yards to Ben Hall—on Clemson’s first three possessions. He later led the Tigers on two more scoring drives in the second quarter to give them a 35-10 halftime lead.
Whitehurst, who is the only quarterback on either side to go 4-0 in the series, completed 18 of 26 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw a 27-yard scoring pass to Duane Coleman in the third quarter to give Clemson a 49-17 lead at the time.
“We took advantages of our opportunities and the coaches did a great job calling the game,” Whitehurst said. “The first two touchdowns were wide open, and that is a credit to the coaches.”
But it just wasn’t the Clemson offense that was clicking. The Tigers dominated South Carolina on defense too. On the first play of the game, USC’s Dondrial Pinkins dropped back to pass from his 20-yard line and Leroy Hill and Khaleed Vaughn sacked him for an 11-yard loss. That set the tone for the night as Clemson picked off three passes and held the Gamecocks to 319 total yards.
“The opening series was big,” Leake said. “We were able to play downhill after that and pin our ears back. Our offense was hitting on all cylinders and that made it so much easier for us.”
While the offense was clicking, the defense kept getting stops. The Gamecocks netted just seven yards on their next two possessions, allowing Whitehurst and company to set the pace and force USC out of its running game early on.
“It was very important for us to set the tone early,” cornerback Justin Miller said. “It kind of helped the offense and let them get in a grove. We wanted them to have to pass the ball and once we got ahead 21-0, they had to put it into the air.”
In the end, the Tigers got a third touchdown run from Chad Jasmin and then a 33-yard run from Chansi Stuckey to close their 63-17 victory. Clemson later accept an invitation to the Peach Bowl where it continued what has been dubbed “The Finish” with a 27-14 victory over No. 6 Tennessee.
For Bowden, it was the end of wild ride in which he went from supposedly losing his job to orchestrating the most lopsided victory in the history of the rivalry. It was only fitting that he ended that ride by being carried off the field at Williams-Brice Stadium to the chants of “Tom-my Bow-den! Tom-my Bow-den!”