By Will Vandervort.
Editor’s note: Last summer The Clemson Insider ran a series of stories that chronicled Clemson’s 11-year battle with rival Georgia from 1977-’87. The series was so popular we decided to run it again this summer in preparation for the Tigers’ visit to Athens — it’s first trip to Sanford Stadium since 2002. From 1977-’87 no rivalry in the country was more intense or competitive than the Clemson-Georgia Series. In those 11 years, the two teams battled to a 5-5-1 record, which started with a one-point Clemson victory in 1977 in Athens and ended with a one-point Clemson victory in 1987 in Clemson. The average margin of victory in the series during that 11-year stretch was 4.7 points per game. Nine of the 11 games were decided by a touchdown or less.
The 1979 Georgia game gave Clemson fans a glimpse of what the next 11 seasons were going to be like in Tigertown.
Under head coach Danny Ford, the Tigers won 96 games, lost only 29 and tied four times. They won five Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, appeared in seven bowl games, won five of them and won a national championship.
But Ford’s teams did not win all those games and championships with a flashy offense that put up 40 or 50 points a game. Instead, Danny Ford’s teams stayed conservative, controlled the clock and tried not to put their defense in any bad positions.
Ford led Clemson teams were known for a strong running game and a defense that was extremely physical and fast. In 1979, Georgia was the first big-time victim to discover the way things were going be under Ford.
“We beat each other up so bad in practice, we looked forward to the games,” linebacker Jeff Davis said. “The games were the easy part. We also wanted to take it out on somebody else.”
The Clemson defense held the Bulldogs to 242 total yards, including 68 yards on the ground. The Tigers picked off Buck Belue three times—twice in the second quarter—in a 12-7 victory in front of 63,500 fans in Death Valley.
“Clemson just whipped us at the line of scrimmage and that’s what happened,” Georgia head coach Vince Dooley said. “Clemson did just about what I expected – kept it simple.”
Because of their defense, the Tigers could afford to keep it simple. Led by guys like Jim Stuckey, Charlie Bauman, Steve Durham, Bubba Brown, Willie Underwood, Rex Varn and Davis, Clemson had one of the best defenses in the country.
Three times in 1979 the Tigers pitched shutouts—Furman, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest—five times they held their opponent to one touchdown and no one in the 11-game regular season scored more than 16 points in a game.
Clemson finished the year yielding only 9.7 points per game.
The Tigers came close to shutting out Georgia on a warm, sunny day in Death Valley. With most of the starters on the bench, the Bulldogs gained 92 of their 242 total yards on the game’s final drive, which came in the last minute and 17 seconds.
Belue ran around the right side for a 21-yard touchdown with nine seconds to play.
“I hate they got in there the last time, but we had some young people in there and I guess that was a coaching mistake. We’ll take the blame for that one,” Ford said.
If Ford was taking the blame for his defense giving up a garbage touchdown in the final seconds, then he deserves credit for a running game that rushed for 306 yards on 71 carries and controlled the clock for 21 minutes and 50 seconds in the second half.
“Our offense came off the football really well,” Ford said. “The offensive line did a super job of controlling the line of scrimmage.”
The first half ended in a scoreless tie as both teams missed out on opportunities to score. Georgia twice moved deep into Clemson territory only to miss a field goal and to be intercepted.
The Tigers did not fare much better. Running back Lester Brown lost a fumble at the Georgia 29. Later on, quarterback Billy Lott threw an interception that stymied another drive at the Georgia 31.
“We should have scored 21 points in the first half,” Ford said. “We put the ball on the ground twice and had one interception.”
Clemson finally broke through on the scoreboard on its first possession of the second half. Brown capped a 14-play, 70-yard drive with a one-yard plunge with 6:51 to play in the third quarter. The drive consumed six minutes and 39 seconds.
After Georgia missed a second field goal on a 60-yard drive that netted no points, the Tigers went on a 19-play, 79-yard drive that ended on downs at the Georgia one when Brown was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the one. The drive, however, consumed seven minutes and 44 seconds.
But two plays later, the Tigers were able to get something for the long drive as Georgia backup quarterback Jeff Pyburn was sacked in the end zone for a safety.
After the free kick, Clemson moved the football to the Georgia seven as fullback Marvin Sims carried the ball on six of the seven plays which ended with a 24-yard Obed Ariri field goal with 5:48 to go.
It did not take long for Clemson to get the ball back. On Georgia’s next drive, Belue was intercepted for a third time on the drives’ second play. Though they did not score any points, the Tigers did erase another 3:37 off the clock with a six-play, 29-yard drive.
Again, Sims carried the load, running five more times for 39 yards before penalties caused the drive to stall. Sims finished the day with a career-high 146 yards on 25 carries. All but 29 of those yards came in the second half.
“Marvin had some good blocking up front,” Ford said. “There was no particular reason why we ran him so much. We just tried to take advantage of the defense they had set up.”
After the Georgia victory, the Tigers went on to win seven of their next eight games, including a 16-10 victory at Notre Dame on Senior Day. The win over the Irish was very similar to what Clemson did to the Bulldogs. They won the game with a strong conservative running game and with a defense that was not afraid to punch people in the mouth and get after it.
In other words, it was the trademark of a Danny Ford coached Clemson team.
Other articles in the series: