Except for the 10,000 or so South Carolina fans that made the trip up from Columbia, there was an eerie silence in Clemson Memorial Stadium when tight end Tommy Hill fell on a Derek Watson fumble in the end zone to give the Gamecocks a 14-13 lead with 59 seconds to play.
For most of the 84,500 that were in attendance on that cold and damp evening, all had felt lost. But Clemson quarterback Woodrow Dantzler was not among them. As South Carolina set up to kick the football off, Dantlzer gathered the offense up and sent them a message.
“I told them that this is not about to happen,” he said to reporters afterwards. “We’re not going to let this happen to our seniors.”
It took a controversial catch from one of those seniors, All-American Rod Gardner, to make the 98th battle of the Palmetto State’s two biggest schools one of the best and most talked about games in the long-standing rivalry.
With only 19 seconds left, Dantzler led the Tigers back on the field following a timeout, while staring at a third down-and-12 situation from their own 42. When he took the shotgun snap, Dantzler rolled to his left, drawing the safety away from Gardner. He then stopped and threw a high, deep lob to the right.
Gardner, who caught the decisive 29-yard touchdown the year before against the Gamecocks on a fourth-down play, ran a go-route down the far sideline. South Carolina had cornerback Andre Goodman underneath in coverage and safety Deandre Eiland deep as the ball went sailing through the air.
“It was in slow motion,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t even thinking about the defender. I just knew I had to make a play, and when it dropped into my hands, oh man.”
Everyone in the stadium held their collective breaths as Gardner hauled in the 50-yard pass, while falling backwards. When he settled to the ground, Clemson had the football at the South Carolina eight with 10 seconds left, and needed just a 25-yard Aaron Hunt field goal to win the game.
“I’m still trying to figure out what happened,” Dantzler said.
Hunt was true on his kick and Clemson celebrated into the night with a dramatic 16-14 victory.
“The rivalry, I didn’t even really know about it until I got here,” said Hunt, who was a freshman from Tennessee that year. “So it was all talk up until tonight. Now I know what it’s really like. It’s a privilege to have a chance like that, and it’s awesome to make the kick.”
The Gamecocks on the other hand were beside themselves and felt as if they were robbed of a victory by the officials. Goodman and Gamecock fans alike said Gardner pushed off to create separation.
“I looked at the ref and I knew he was going to pull the flag,” Goodman said. “He looked at me and smiled. I said, ‘You had to see that’ He just smiled and shook his head. That rule is so funny. Sometimes it is called and sometimes it isn’t.”
Gardner saw it differently.
“I didn’t touch him. I was playing the ball,” he said.
Other than Gardner, everyone involved was surprised there was no flag thrown on what turned out to be the biggest single play in the history of the rivalry since Jerry Butler’s leaping touchdown reception in the final seconds to give the Tigers a victory in 1977.
Prior to Gardner’s catch, the two teams were flagged a combined 20 times for 111 yards. Clemson was called for four pass interference penalties that night and former head coach Tommy Bowden admitted by the way the game was being called he was surprised he did not see one on that play.
“I know we probably had four interference calls and they had one. I was really surprised,” he said. “From what I saw earlier, yeah I was surprised. If it’s up in the air, there was an interference call. Any time we threw a pass up, I thought there would be a flag called.”
Former South Carolina head coach Lou Holtz was extremely angry following the game. He would later say Gardner’s push-off was blatant. Because of the way the game was officiate, the Gamecocks coach never felt they had the game won when Hill landed on Watson’s fumble in the end zone with 59 seconds to play.
“You never think you have it won. Not as long as there are twenty-nine people on the field,” he said.
The way Gardner saw it, it wasn’t the officials who won the game he just made a play when the opportunity came.
“I knew I had to make a play to win the game,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose the game like that.”
Gardner finished his Clemson career as the all-time leading receiver in receptions (166) and yards (2,498) and was the first receiver in school history to record back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons.