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 1980 Georgia game was a microcosm of the entire season. The Tigers looked like the better team for much of the time, but in the end they just could not make the plays that good teams make when it matters the most.
Instead, they were a team of mediocrity that wallowed around in a 6-5 season.
“In 1980, we had the talent. We were in some close games and we were pretty good, but with our record you could not tell that story and get away with it,” said Jeff Davis, who played middle linebacker on the 1980 team.
Beside the four-point loss to Georgia, the Tigers also lost by four points at NC State, then two weeks later had a first-and-goal at the North Carolina six-yard line late in the fourth quarter and failed to get in the end zone in a 24-19 loss.
Led by future Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive end Lawrence Taylor, the Tar Heels stopped Clemson on back-to-back plays from the one-yard line to secure their victory.
“We just could not make the plays necessary to win those games,” said Danny Ford, the Tigers’ head coach in 1980.
The Georgia game is where it all started. In almost every phase of the game Clemson outplayed the 10th-ranked Bulldogs, but instead of finding ways to win the game, they instead found ways to lose it.
On its second and third drives that afternoon in Sanford Stadium, Clemson racked up 99 yards on 26 plays and had no points to show for it. First Obed Ariri missed on a 47-yard field goal, and then quarterback Homer Jordan threw an interception in the end zone on the following possession to stymie another scoring opportunity.
“In the first half, we were our own worst enemy,” Ford said. “Georgia is a good football team, well coached and they played a heads up game. We just let them off the hook.”
Actually, it was Georgia safety Scott Woerner that let the Bulldogs off the hook. First he took a David Sims punt 67 yards down the right sideline for the game’s first touchdown with 13:28 to play in the first quarter.
After Ariri’s field goal attempt fell short, Jordan led Clemson to the Bulldogs’ 11-yard line. On third down-and-nine, Jordan’s pass to Perry Tuttle was picked off by Woerner in the Georgia end zone and he returned it 98 yards before fullback Chuck McSwain tackled him at the Clemson two.
Two plays later, Georgia quarterback Buck Belue took it in from the one-yard line and all of sudden Georgia had a 14-0 lead despite running three offensive plays to Clemson’s 29.
“Woerner saved us,” said Vince Dooley, Georgia’s head coach at the time. “If he hadn’t given us that lead early, we would have been in very bad shape in the first half.”
The Tigers nearly fell behind by three touchdowns on the next drive after Jordan fumbled and lost the ball at his own 25 following a sack. The Bulldogs appeared to be going in for another score when Belue found a receiver over the middle for 22 yards, but he fumbled the ball and Clemson recovered it in its own end zone.
With new quarterback Mike Gasque in the game, Clemson went on a 17-play scoring drive which Gasque capped when he picked up a Cliff Austin fumble and rumbled five yards for a touchdown. The Tigers added a 21-yard Ariri field goal with 34 seconds left in the first half to pull within four points at 14-10.
“I think the team showed a lot of character after getting behind 14-0. We kept on fighting and scratching and got ourselves back in it,” Davis said.
Clemson finished the first half with 239 total yards in 57 plays, while Georgia ran just 11 plays for 33 yards.
“I think that in the first half, it wasn’t that we had no offense, we just didn’t have the ball very much—only five minutes in the entire first half,” Dooley said. “But I must commend the Clemson offense. They picked on our defense well, mixing up their plays. They had a great game plan.”
But the Tigers had only 10 points to show for it and Georgia, who went onto win the national championship that season, made them pay for it to start the second half. The Bulldogs opened up the last 30 minutes with an 11-play, 52-yard drive that was capped with a 42-yard field goal.
On Clemson’s ensuing possession, Rob Miles picked off a Gasque pass and returned it to the Tigers’ 31. A few plays later, Rex Robinson kicked his second field goal of the afternoon, this time from 27 yards, and the Bulldogs extended their lead to 20-10 with 7:53 to play in the third quarter.
“I don’t think I have ever been involved in a game where we were out of it and get back in it, get out of it and get back in it, again and again,” Ford said.
The Tigers got back in the game on their very next possession when Jordan returned and led Clemson on a 52-yard drive, capped with a 45-yard Ariri field goal. The drive was aided thanks to a roughing the kicker penalty on a Clemson punt.
With 12:12 to play and trailing 20-13, the Tigers took over at their own 19 and went on a 73-yard drive which took almost six minutes and moved to the Georgia eight. On third down-and-seven, Gasque appeared to have found Tuttle in the end zone for what looked like was going to be a touchdown, but defensive back Mike Fisher was able to break up the pass at the last second to prevent the score.
Ariri was true from 25 yards out on the next play as Clemson settled to pull within four points, 20-16, with 6:49 to play in the game.
“I’m proud of our team after the test Clemson put us through, and it was a big test,” Dooley said.
It got bigger in the closing moments. Facing a fourth down at the Clemson 45, Georgia punter Jim Broadway dropped the snap and after the ball was kicked around for a few seconds, the Tigers recovered it at the Georgia 41.
On second-and-eight from the 39, Gasque threw a pass to wide receiver Jerry Galliard, who appeared to have run into Woerner’s back, that fell incomplete. But the official on the play flagged Woerner for pass interference, giving Clemson the football at the Georgia 10.
On second-and-goal from the 10, Gasque again looked Galliard’s way, but this time the pass was deflected and Jeff Hipp caught it at the one to end yet another potential scoring drive for Clemson without any points.
“Clemson beat Clemson today,” Ford said.
Herschel Walker, known as one the greatest college football players of all time, nearly gave the Tigers the ball back on the next play when he fumbled the football on second down, but fell on it at his own seven. On the next play, the freshman made up for the mistake when he rumbled 20 yards up the field to the Georgia 27 to secure the Bulldogs’ victory.
Walker, who finished the game with 121 yards on 23 carries, earned 40 of his yards on Georgia’s the last two possessions.
“Herschel is big, he’s fast and he’s smart,” Davis said. “But he didn’t hurt us. Ask him who the best defense he’s ever played against and he’ll say Clemson.”
But on this particular day in 1980, Walker didn’t need to beat Clemson because Clemson beat Clemson.
Other articles in the series